For all intents and purposes, “March Madness” has been a rather rote affair this year.
That’s not to say things haven’t been exciting in the NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament, particularly when Duke has been involved.
By and large, however, familiar top seeds have dominated the field through Saturday night’s Elite Eight matchups.
The closest thing the tournament has had to a “Cinderella” story this year has been the lowest remaining seed — the No. 5-seeded Auburn Tigers.
Auburn, led by head coach Bruce Pearl, has stunned a pair of bluebloods en route to its Elite Eight berth.
After surviving a scare from New Mexico State in the opening round, Auburn found its footing and easily beat No. 4 Kansas. After that game, Pearl made it abundantly clear where he was giving glory for his team’s stellar performance in dispatching the Jayhawks.
Hear from Bruce Pearl after Auburn wins in Salt Lake City to move on to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. 🐅🕺 pic.twitter.com/yHPULlmAFH
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 24, 2019
“Guys are bought in. They’re trusting each other. No man is jealous of another man’s success,” Pearl said after the 89-75 victory. “We put the Lord first, and trust whatever He’s got in store for us, we’re accepting of. We give Him the glory.”
Pearl and his squad then moved onto the Sweet 16, where they ran into No. 1 seed North Carolina. While some weren’t shocked that the talented Tigers upset the Tar Heels, it was certainly surprising that Auburn totally dominated UNC in a 97-80 win.
That victory didn’t come without loss, however.
With just minutes left in the game, standout sophomore forward Chuma Okeke suffered a gruesome knee injury. Okeke had scored a game-high 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds before his knee buckled.
After the game, Pearl was clearly emotional when speaking about Okeke.
“We’re going to rally,” he said, clearly choked up. “I’ll go hug on him.”
“We’re going to rally. I’ll go hug on him.”
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 30, 2019
Once the euphoria of the Tigers’ second Elite Eight appearance had subsided a bit, Pearl again turned to his faith when discussing Okeke’s injury with ESPN.
“Our prayers are all with (Okeke) right now,” he said, again getting emotional. “I’ve asked God to put a hedge of protection over him and give him some healing and get him back to us.”
Pearl learned Saturday that Okeke’s season is officially over. An MRI revealed he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, 247 Sports reported.
The report said Okeke will undergo surgery Tuesday but will stay with the team and cheer on his teammates from the bench.
Auburn plays the Kentucky Wildcats on Sunday as it seeks the first Final Four berth in school history.
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