Vahe Gregorian

Careful what you might wish for: Auburn swamps North Carolina 97-80

UNC’s Roy Williams after loss to Auburn: ‘I wouldn’t trade my guys for anybody’

Watch North Carolina coach Roy Williams' opening comments in his press conference following the Tar Heels' Sweet 16 loss to the Auburn Tigers Friday night March 29, 2019.
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Watch North Carolina coach Roy Williams' opening comments in his press conference following the Tar Heels' Sweet 16 loss to the Auburn Tigers Friday night March 29, 2019.

You couldn’t blame North Carolina coach Roy Williams if he exhaled some when Auburn swarmed and smothered Kansas 89-75 last week, averting what he surely supposed he wanted least out of his return to Kansas City: a matchup in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional semifinal of his top-seeded Tar Heels and the school he coached for 15 years.

Never mind that Williams has been back at North Carolina a year longer than he coached the Jayhawks, who are 3-0 against him in NCAA play. The sentimental attachment is one of those ties that binds, something that seems to reflexively consume him any time the relationship comes up. His circuits just might have exploded at the idea of taking them on as a No. 4 seed underdog at Sprint Center, where then-No. 8 seed UNC lost to No. 1 seed KU in the 2013 NCAA.

“Coming back and playing Kansas here, playing them the next year in St. Louis, those kind of things, it isn’t pleasant because of my feeling for that school and a lot of the people,” Williams said Thursday.

But careful what you might wish for, or even just wish against, as the case may be.

Because the alternative proved infinitely worse than what Williams and his team would have encountered against KU: a fifth-seeded Auburn team that mulched UNC 97-80 on Friday night by flicking in 17 three-pointers — the most ever surrendered by one of Williams’ Carolina teams.

“It was a bad time to have that happen,” Williams said.

It also was a bad time for UNC to be depleted, with Nassir Little and Cameron Johnson playing despite lugging around illnesses.

But mostly it appears to be just a bad time to be playing Auburn, which narrowly escaped New Mexico State in the first round after bungling a 13-point lead but absolutely straitjacketed KU and now North Carolina — an unprecedented feat in successive NCAA tourney games against two of the most storied programs in college basketball history.

It made for quite a way to punctuate Auburn’s first Elite Eight berth since 1986, and what more appropriate foe to face next in the so-called bracket of death than another of the bluebloods: second-seeded Kentucky, which was playing Houston late Friday night.

The Wildcats swept Auburn this season, including 80-53 on Feb. 23, which also happened to be the last time Auburn lost.

Eleven straight wins later, Tigers coach Bruce Pearl can point to what was gained in that loss and might suggest that what didn’t destroy this team made it stronger.

“The lesson there was that we didn’t (fold),” he said. “Because we respect Kentucky so much, and we recognized they had a great night, these guys weren’t destroyed.”

Whoever they face next, that forging, or revealing, of resilience and character has fresh relevance now for Auburn, which put together a 14-0 run from the end of the first half into the early second half after trailing 39-35 and got 40 points off its bench.

Certainly, the mental toughness was an obvious factor for Auburn when forward Chuma Okeke went down with what Pearl called a “serious” knee injury with 8 minutes, 8 seconds left and Auburn leading 76-62.

With 20 points, 11 rebounds and a devastating blocked shot of Little moments before, Okeke had dominated the game. That was one thing.

But his scream as he went down and writhing in pain was another, one that led to a poignant pause in the game. As he lay on the floor, the entire Auburn team, bench and all, went to his side. Many prayed, said Pearl, who was in tears before his news conference began.

Then the Carolina starters ran to him as he was helped off.

“Three of our guys started going without me saying anything, and then I motioned for the other two guys to go down there,” Williams said, adding how proud he was that his kids “were going down there without me saying something.”

As much as the berserk pace, that was a scene anyone who watched this game will remember.

Almost as memorable, though, was what Auburn did next at a point it might have sagged and the momentum might well have shifted.

UNC hit a three-pointer to cut the lead to 11, but Auburn bristled. The Tar Heels never were inside a double-digit deficit again and trailed by as much as 21 amid Auburn’s onslaught of threes: The Tigers hit 12 of 18 in the second half, many, somehow, with wide-open look despite being known for their emphasis on long-range shots.

Appropriately enough, Auburn’s last points were on a three by freshman reserve Myles Parker, the first successful one of his career.

Auburn’s ability to move on to the Final Four despite the likely absence of Okeke, of course, will be another matter on Sunday. He’s a “nightmare to match up with,” Pearl said.

But there’s something about this Auburn team, too, something that says it’s a nightmare to match up with in itself.

And a bad time to be playing against it, no matter how preferable it might seem.

Follow more of our reporting on Midwest Regional: Kansas City hosts games for March Madness

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.