The fifth-seeded Tigers poured in 17 3-pointers, a dozen of which came during the decisive final 20 minutes, and surprisingly held their own on the boards on the way to their 11th straight victory — a 97-80 upset in the Midwest region semifinals that emphatically ended the Tar Heels’ season at 29-7.
“They came out in the second half and I don’t think they missed their first five threes,” said freshman point guard Coby White, who tied for his team lead with 15 points despite missing all seven of his 3-point attempts. “When a team is on fire like that and everything is going for them, it’s hard to stop.”
Although Auburn didn’t actually get rolling until after halftime, the ominous signs began to show early, specifically in the way the Tigers attacked the offensive boards.
That was an area that was supposed to be a clear advantage for the Tar Heels, who led the nation in rebounding average. But with 6-foot-8 sophomore Chuma Okeke leading the way, the Tigers turned eight first half offensive rebounds into second-chance points.
Their work on the glass helped offset a 26.3 percent effort (5 for 19) from long range.
“They didn’t do anything crazy. They just got to the right spots and got the ball,” sophomore big man Garrison Brooks said. “It was tough to see, tough to deal with. That’s just how it went today.”
Despite the unexpected difficulty on the boards, nine turnovers and a flu epidemic that left both Cam Johnson and Nassir Little at less than full strength physically, UNC still found itself ahead by four with the ball and a chance to finally gain some separation in the final minute of the half.
Instead it was Auburn (29-9) that seized the momentum into the intermission by scoring six straight points to take the lead.
The final two came from reserve guard J’Von McCormick, who raced the length of the court in the final six seconds of the period as the Tar Heels stood around and watched.
“That play at the end of the first half when he was able to go down the lane and finish was a big play,” McCormick’s Auburn teammate Jared Harper said afterward.
As dramatic as the Tigers’ late first half spurt was, UNC’s Kenny Williams said his team went into the locker room at halftime feeling positive.
“That wasn’t going to be the run that got us down,” he said.
Actually, it turned out to be only the start of it.
Brimming with confidence and taking advantage of a Tar Heels defense that consistently got sucked in by the penetration of point guard Harper, consistently leaving perimeter shooters open, Auburn began the second half by scoring eight straight points to extend its run to 14 unanswered points.
By the time the Tigers’ barrage was done, they had hit 10 of their first 13 second half 3-pointers and extended their lead well into double figures. The 17 3-pointers were the most ever against a Williams-coached UNC team.
“They hit some shots and we tried to get it back all in one play and it didn’t go in our favor,” said senior forward Luke Maye, who finished his college career with 13 points and seven assists “We didn’t play to our strengths at the end and forced shome shots. Credit to Auburn. They shot the ball well and we didn’t guard well enough to win tonight.”
Several times during the second half, the Tar Heels appeared ready to make one of their trademark runs and get back into contention. But each time the Tigers had an answer.
Okeke, who led all scorers with 20 points, did the most damage. When he left with a gruesome knee injury suffered while driving to the basket, teammate Daniel Purifoy took over to put the Tar Heels away with his fourth 3-pointer of the second half after UNC had narrowed a 19-point deficit down to 10 with 5½ minutes remaining.
As if Auburn’s hot shooting wasn’t enough, the Tar Heels’ efforts to rally were hampered their own physical maladies.
Little, who missed practice Thursday with a 100-degree temperature, was clearly slowed while having four of his shots — including two dunk attempts — blocked.
Johnson, who came down with a similar illness earlier in the day Friday and was throwing up after the game, managed to gut out 29 minutes of playing time. He tied White for the team lead with 15 points, but was just 4 of 11 from the floor (2 of 7 from 3-point range).
“They went out there and gave everything they had. Hats off to them,” Kenny Williams said of his sick teammates. “They didn’t want us to go out there without them. They did everything they could and built up enough strength to get on the court tonight. But these are things you have to deal with. Injuries are part of the game, so you can’t really do anything about it.”