KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Auburn is the lowest remaining seed in the NCAA tournament, but the Tigers are the rest of the field’s worst nightmare.
Auburn took down its second straight college basketball giant Friday night in the Sweet 16, running away from North Carolina in the second half for a 97-80 victory. The Tigers, the No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region, will play the winner of Kentucky and Houston.
The Tigers beat the No. 1 seeded Tar Heels the same way they took down Kansas to advance to the Sweet 16. They made 17 of 37 3-point shots (46 percent), including 12-of-18 in the second half. They buried 43 percent of their 3s in beating the Jayhawks.
The Tigers are fearless. They’re unafraid of any shot and any pace and if they continue their torrid percentage from 3 on Sunday, they’ll advance to the first Final Four in school history.
“It was too difficult for us (to defend Auburn) because we didn’t do a very good job of it,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “They push the pace very hard, come right up your back. They penetrate and in trying to make the decision whether to help or stay attached to the 3-point shooter, they can back you off with their quickness and shoot it.
“But they still had to make them and you have to give them credit for that.”
The down note for the Tigers was the loss of forward Chuma Okeke with a knee injury. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl wouldn’t speculate on the nature of the injury but said ”it could be serious.”
Okeke is Auburn’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer. He was their top scorer against North Carolina with 20 points.
“In a game full of guys that have got a chance to play at the next level, I thought he was the best player,” Pearl said.
“He’s a nightmare to match up with because he can guard any position. He can score inside and out. So as a play caller, he gives you incredible flexibility. He’s our most versatile player.”
The Tigers made their first three shots of the second half — two of them from 3 to go on an 8-0 run and take control of the game. The Tar Heels never seriously threatened after that.
North Carolina, as the Tar Heels usually do, insisted on playing at a frantically fast pace. Auburn didn’t hesitate to run with them. Their shooting was off in the first half as were just 5-of-9 (26 percent) from 3.
Auburn’s second-half shooting was more of typical of the Tigers of late. As Pearl said, “We are who we are.”
That’s a team with 11 straight victories, the longest current winning streak among Division I teams. The ride could end on Sunday, but that’s going to take an opponent more adept defensively than Kansas and North Carolina.