Monday, April 1, 2019

Schaible: Auburn thrived off Okeke's injury and vaulted its way to its first-ever Final Four trip

Photo Credit: Christian Petersen- Getty Images

By: Brian Schaible
Twitter: @SBNationReports

In football, it’s commonplace to say, “Well as long as this team stays injury free, they have a real shot at a championship.”

We think nothing of it.

While we acknowledge injuries occur in basketball, they are usually of superficial variety. You know, the types where you end up in a Batman inspired nose guard.

For Kentucky and Auburn, this was a tale of two more serious injuries.

For one player, his season is over. 

For the other, well, um, it’s also over.

It was just a week ago that we saw PJ Washington with a hard cast on his leg. He was wheeling on a scooter and applying no pressure whatsoever on his injured foot.

His coach, John Calipari has been teasing the media the last several weeks with vague prognoses on when the star forward could return.

I think for most fans and media, the assumption was he would be returning next season, and that’s only if he opted out of entering the NBA Draft.

But he did return and he was sensational.

Against Houston in the regional semifinal, his 16-point performance, along with a gigantic blocked shot, almost single handedly propelled the Wildcats into the Elite Eight.

Against Auburn, Washington was near unstoppable in the first half as he dominated inside and outside.

It looked like Auburn was overmatched and this would inevitably be another Kentucky route. In other words, an outcome similar to when these two teams last met.

After watching them play so well without him last weekend, and now seeing Washington’s production in the Sweet 16, I was starting to envision Kentucky holding another championship trophy.

Washington is a big man, and he was making a big-time impact.

But, on the other side there is the story of another big man who was not in the game— Chuma Okeke.

The sophomore provided key buckets throughout the SEC Tournament including a monster performance in the title game against Tennessee.

In the NCAA tourney, he has led the way on and off the court.

Things ended abruptly for Okeke against North Carolina. After sprinting out in the second half and establishing a solid lead, Chuma had a collision that resulted a torn ACL in his left knee.

They held on against the Tar Heels, but even the most fervent Tigers fan had to be skeptical about their chances to advance to the Final Four.

On Sunday morning, Okeke told Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, he was in too much pain and would not be at the Kentucky game, at least not the start.

As Okeke watched Kentucky essentially man handling his teammates early on, he knew he had to be there to provide a lift.

Auburn remained resilient despite being outplayed. As they headed to the locker room for the halftime intermission, the Tigers trailed only by five.

Outside the arena, chaos was running amok as a police escort sirens sounded, Okeke was making his way making to the Sprint Center.

Was this some elaborate ruse cooked up by coach Bruce Pearl to motivate his team? Possibly.

But, it worked.

Okeke was rushed into the building. He did not see the team at halftime but they felt his presence.

This was not going to be a Willis Reed type situation. He was not going to play, but he was there to inspire.

Auburn responded and rushed out to a 7-0 run early in the second half. Both teams fought back and forth right to the final buzzer which led to overtime.

In the extra period, Jared Harper proved to be too much. Bruce Pearl absolutely loves his point guard and you can see why.

He’s a combination of fearlessness and tenacity. He’s damn near impossible to guard one of one. In overtime, it was practically all Harper isolations and delivered time and time again, which resulted in Auburn making it to the Final Four.

“I can’t do it with having the support of my teammates and coaches,” said Harper. “Guys like Samir grabbing those 50/50 balls, those rebounds, how Bryce (Brown) was playing offensively late second half. That gives me the confidence going into overtime to make those plays.”

Bryce Brown was a force from the outside. His four three-pointers often came at critical junctures.

When it seemed Kentucky was starting to break out, or get anything going momentum wise, it was Brown that often had the answer.

“It’s unreal,” said Brown. “It’s very, very emotional. I feel like this whole game we really wanted to do this for Chuma and the whole Auburn family. They supported us so much, but it just goes back to trusting each other and doing what we needed to win the game.”

Okeke did make it on the court. As the confetti flew,Okeke, with leg in full traction, was wheeled to front of the podium stage and celebrated their Midwest Region Championship right alongside his teammates.

It was nothing short of Pat Bowlen and John Elway-esque as Bruce Pearl loudly exclaimed to the crowd, that these two to games were for Okeke but the next two are for Auburn.

“I do believe in them, even though I’m pretty hard on them,” said Pearl. “At Auburn, in athletics we are not Cinderella’s in anything. We win championships. We are really, really good in all those other sports. Been a long time since men’s basketball has been good. That’s what makes it so special for us.”