Auburn coach Bruce Pearl says the Tigers are hoping for the best in regard to forward Chuma Okeke’s knee injury while acknowledging the severity of what happened during Friday’s Sweet 16 win over North Carolina.
“We fear for the worst, and we hope for the best. We think it’s a pretty serious injury,” Pearl said on ESPN’s College GameDay. “… Almost night in and night out, in this month, Chuma Okeke’s been the best player on the floor. We’re gonna miss him a lot having to go up against Kentucky tomorrow.”
Okeke underwent an MRI on Saturday morning, Pearl said.
The Tigers continued their hot shooting in pulling away from top-seeded North Carolina.
Kentucky beat Auburn by 27 the last time the two played. The Tigers haven’t lost since that Feb. 23 meeting.
Auburn insisted all along that it wouldn’t change its style against up-tempo North Carolina.
The Tigers will face the Wildcats in the Elite Eight on Sunday after knocking out top-seeded North Carolina on Friday night.
“It’s a bittersweet accomplishment because of Chuma getting hurt late in the game. Nobody works harder, nobody gives us more courage,” Pearl said after the win.
“When it gets tough and you got to go to a matchup, we got [No.] five and you don’t. That’s how we felt. In a game full of guys that — that have got a chance to play at the next level, I thought he was the best player, and that has happened a lot to us this year. So we’re disappointed he may be lost, but we are very, very grateful to be moving on and representing the SEC and Auburn in the Elite 8.”
Okeke had scored a game-high 20 points and pulled down 11 rebounds before sustaining a gruesome injury to his left knee in the closing minutes of the Tigers’ win over top-seeded North Carolina.
Pearl got emotional after the game, his eyes filling with tears as he said “We’re going to rally. I’ll go hug on him.”
Okeke suffered the injury with 8:08 left in the second half, crashing to the floor while going up for a layup. He grabbed his knee in obvious pain before standing and being helped off the court. North Carolina players walked over to greet Okeke and wish him well before he left the game.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 30, 2019
The NCAA posted video of Okeke, his knee wrapped in ice, stamping the bracket in Auburn’s locker room to show the Tigers advance.
“We’re praying for him, y’all can pray for him, too. Just keep him in high spirits,” Auburn’s Malik Dunbar said.