‘Perseverance and persistence’: An oral history of Auburn’s 2019 Final Four run
The 2018-2019 Auburn basketball team did the improbable during March Madness by defeating traditional blue bloods Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky en route to their first Final Four appearance in program history. If not for a controversial no-call on a double dribble against Virginia in the final seconds, the Tigers might have played in their first basketball national championship as well.
Auburn journalism students interviewed several people who observed the team’s run to the Final Four from different perspectives. They provided an inside look into the preparation, moments and memories of four unforgettable weeks.
Those interviewed include assistant coach Wes Flanigan; players Bryce Brown, Chuma Okeke, and Myles Parker; basketball sports information director Cody Voga; head team manager Maddux Jeffreys; Auburn Network analyst (and former head coach) Sonny Smith; Jeff Goodman, analyst for Stadium Basketball Insider; Tom Hart, SEC Network sportscaster; Josh Vitale, Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser; Auburn Mayor Ron Anders; and fans Bob Broadway (class of 1991) and Lane Neumann (junior). News conference and interview quotes from Bruce Pearl are also included.
This is that story, in their words.
Comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
In some ways, the run to the Final Four began with a crushing loss at Kentucky. After losing their January meeting on a missed last-second shot in Auburn Arena, the Tigers got blown out in Rupp Arena, 80-53.
Myles Parker, guard (2018-present): We were just tired of being pushed around. We went out there and got completely embarrassed on national television. Everybody went to the locker room completely embarrassed.
Chuma Okeke, forward (2017-2019): That Kentucky loss was embarrassing. We felt like we could go into their house and compete with them because we felt like we could beat them. After that game, we were like, “We’ve gotta stop this up and down play,” and that was really it.
Cody Voga, associate director of athletics communication for men’s basketball: We had expected to compete at Kentucky and Coach Pearl told his team that if we want to show how far this program has come, we have to do it on this stage. But we got there and from the opening tip it was over. That game was a good measuring stick of saying, “Hey we are pretty good, but we aren’t there yet and we have a lot of room to grow.”
Ron Anders, mayor of Auburn: I don’t think it’s any question that there were Auburn people who thought the season was going to sputter at that point. It’s just a testament to Coach Pearl and his leadership abilities and character of the men in that program. The assistant coaches and the players used that as a catalyst to go on a historic run and they didn’t use it as a catalyst to sink the rest of the season.
Bryce Brown, guard (2015-2019): It wasn’t very big of a concern. We knew afterwards that it was one of our worst games of the season. We just wanted to improve from the game and figure out where we went wrong and then correct it.
Tom Hart, SEC Network sportscaster: It may have been a thorn in Pearl’s side, because of his relationship with John Calipari. Kentucky was elite and Auburn still had to prove themselves as elite. Kentucky was full of McDonald’s All-Americans and first round picks — Auburn had a couple. On paper, Kentucky is who they are and they proved it on the court with that game at Rupp, a place where Auburn has had a hard time winning, historically. If you look at it in the aftermath and in hindsight, Kentucky proved to be a willing foil — they were who Auburn wanted to be. They were elite players and an elite program, with decades upon decades of success, historically. In the moment, Kentucky had a roster full of playmakers and guys in every position they could go to, to get buckets. From a stylistic standpoint, Auburn was pretty one-dimensional. Kentucky proved throughout the season that they were multi-dimensional.
Maddux Jeffreys, head team manager: Honestly going to Rupp that weekend, I thought we were going to win. We had a great game plan and even Bruce said it after his postgame interview: “I felt great this weekend; I thought we were going to win.” But it was a blessing in disguise because we got blown out there and I think it kinda set everyone’s attitude, and then we rattled off 12 straight.
The Tigers boosted their confidence after the loss to Kentucky — and changed their season — in their next game, when Okeke shot a game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds at Georgia.
Okeke: Going into that game, me and some of the coaches worked on going through that same shooting motion that I did. We were going into a home environment like Georgia and to win a game like that, it made us feel like we could win against any team in the country. That game gave us that confidence to go on a run.
Bruce Pearl, coach: The last play is kind of a no-brainer. You have 3 seconds on the shot clock. It’s a one-touch possession. The only thing we did different is we flip-flopped Chuma, who always inbounds, with Samir, who’s always on the ball-side block. I wanted size on the catch in the sense that I wanted a guy like Chuma or Anfernee (McLeMore) to look over a smaller player to get a clean look. He could have ripped and gone to the basket, but I told him if you like your catch, shoot it.
Josh Vitale, Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser: That was a huge shot. That was coming off the 27-point loss at Kentucky which was not a loss you feel good about having. To come back and get that buzzer-beating shot from Chuma and win that game on the road, that was just like a settle down, “OK, I think we’re going to be all right.” That really started Auburn’s run.
Parker: That’s the time of the season where we learned how to finish games. At the end we really came together because we went up there without Malik (Dunbar). That was when the whole team really came together.
Voga: When Chuma Okeke hit that game winning 3 against Georgia, that was when everybody started to believe we have a chance to do something special.
Anders: To win a very difficult game on the road in the SEC is hard to do. Coming off a devastating defeat by the premier program in the conference would have made it difficult for us to finish the season the way we did last season. So, psychologically, that victory gave Auburn, gave the players, hope that they could get the season back on track.
Auburn closed the regular season by beating No. 5 Tennessee at Auburn Arena, 84-80.
Sonny Smith, color commentator, Auburn Sports Network: Ultra-important. Tennessee has lived on as a “power” in basketball almost every year, and when you knock a team like Tennessee off and you’re able to do it in the manner we were able to, it’s sensational play both offensively and defensively. It throws a great line on your program and sets you up for better things.
Wes Flanigan, assistant coach: It was very important … for our guys and their mentality. I think they actually thought they were better than Tennessee. Even going back earlier to the Maui game, we played Duke and there wasn’t a guy in our locker room that didn’t think we could beat them. I don’t think that that team last year thought that any team was better than them in the country.
Jeffreys: It spring-boarded us and gave us a lot of confidence because the biggest thing was seeding. If I remember correctly, we were in a tie for fifth. That win mattered for seeding of who we would play in the SEC Tournament.
Vitale: Tennessee was obviously one of the hottest teams in the country at that point and Auburn played them very well at home. Just to continue that kind of streak they were on, they had won three straight, they beat Alabama. Now you win a fourth straight to end the season. They had a lot of momentum going into the SEC Tournament. That’s kind of the key in basketball. It’s not always the best or most talented team in the country, it’s the team who gets the hottest and is playing the best at the right time. That team started to at that point, and the Tennessee win was part of it.
Jeff Goodman, basketball insider for Stadium: Tennessee has one of the national players of the year, maybe No. 2 to Zion with Grant Williams. They got pros, they got (Admiral) Schofield, Jordan Bone. It was just one of those games again, you got Bruce beating his former team. Those are big ones for him, beating Tennessee, because although he won’t say it, the way it went down there was hard for him. Because what he had done was build Tennessee into a kind of national power, and he’s trying to do the same thing at Auburn. That was just one of those like, “I know I screwed up, but ultimately you guys got rid of me and here’s what I’m doing here. I can beat you at Auburn.”
Okeke: That’s a game we really wanted to win because that was the school where BP (Bruce Pearl) came from, and also they were ranked high in the country and they were a good team. Beating them in our house with our home crowd was amazing. We were already on a run prior to that game too, so that game gave us a boost to head into the SEC Tournament.
Brown: Beating Tennessee at that point of the season meant a lot to me. It let me know that we were getting better as a team. It was also senior night and also a chance for them to clinch the SEC regular season title and we stopped them from doing that.
Parker: We knew they had a lot on the line so we wanted to be the team that took that all away from them.
Lane Neumann, junior: It shows you can beat anybody. Tennessee overall has such a good program. I think that matchup showed it’s anybody’s game when it comes to this. Sometimes it only takes one shot.
Bob Broadway, class of 1991: That was a huge win. Obviously it took the SEC crown off Tennessee. I don’t care what Bruce says, it means a little bit more to beat Tennessee. He coached there several years and had lots of success, so beating them was pretty special.
At the SEC Tournament, Auburn’s semifinal win is remembered for a controversial no-call on a last-second shot by Andrew Nembhard of Florida.
Pearl: I told Bryce to foul Membhard as he was bringing the ball up the floor. I wanted a foul. Bryce waited until Nembhard got a little too close to the basket. Whether Nembhard got tied up cleanly or there was some contact, obviously they passed on it, and we were fortunate.
Voga: From my vantage point, I believe we were trying to foul them before a shot went up but it didn’t happen.
Jeffreys: I think he did foul him, but it was before the shot so he would’ve gotten two shots instead of three. You can’t do anything against the refs. Yeah, you can look at calls, but at the end of the day the refs are humans too so it happens.
Anders: I remember that it was a no-call that went Auburn’s way. I’m not going to apologize, if I’m Auburn I wouldn’t be apologizing for it. Over the balance of a season where you play almost 40 games you’re going to have things go for you and things go against you.
Broadway: You could argue it impacted the win. To me, they hadn’t been calling that all game, so why would they call it then? They were letting the kids play.
Brown: There isn’t much to say other than I guess it came back to hurt us in the Final Four.
Auburn went on to dominate Tennessee in the SEC Tournament final, 84-64, to win its first SEC Tournament since 1985.
Brown: My reaction to that dominating win was full of excitement. I feel like that was a huge turning point for us heading into the NCAA Tournament, which created momentum where nobody in the nation could stop us.
Okeke: That was probably the most fun I ever had in a game. We expected the game to be a dogfight, and we came out shooting, we weren’t missing anything. Our defense was good, and everything was on point for us to win that championship.
Parker: We had confidence for sure, but we didn’t know it was going to turn out that good. We had a really good scouting report on them.
Jeffreys: The team I was most afraid of in the tournament was Kentucky, and I was scouting the Kentucky-Tennessee game. Once Kentucky lost, I was like, “We’re going to blow these dudes out because of what we did at Auburn, our confidence through each game and the style that Tennessee played.” They didn’t do well against fast teams that shot 3s and that was our M.O. last year.
Anders: On a personal level, that was a special day. Me and my brother and all of our children spent the day with my father and watched that game at his home. Ultimately, my dad would be gone less than two months later. So that was really the last time my dad had his entire family with him watching a ball game, which we’ve done with him all of his life and to watch Auburn just destroy Tennessee was just icing on the cake.
Smith: I’d grown used to it, to be honest. We were great at putting people away after we got the lead. You want to have your team playing the best at the end of a season, so they’ll be better in postseason play. Bruce Pearl had prepared his team just for that type of situation. They were better conditioned, they took advantage of fouling situations and they played tremendous basketball to win. Tennessee was very, very good. They had a combination of 3-point shooting and inside power play that most people don’t, and (Auburn) defended it extremely well.
Voga: We got hot. Everything we did on offense worked, we figured it out on defense, and every shot we put up we felt like it was going in. Coach Pearl’s message to the team before the game was that we had a chance to make history, as we’ve only won one SEC Tournament title in 1985. So it didn’t matter who the opponent was, this was something we wanted to accomplish.
In some ways, you could say Auburn’s run to the NCAA Final Four began in March 2014, when the team named Bruce Pearl as its head coach three years after his firing at Tennessee. The change in atmosphere was evident.
Smith: He turned Auburn into a school that’s known worldwide now, and especially nationally. He restored pride in the basketball program and turned it into a money-making situation. He has been one of the best hires that I’ve seen in a long time at a university.
Hart: Well, it was overnight. You have to consider where the Auburn program was. To be quite frank, there was little to no interest. Especially disappointing was the fact that they were playing in a newish facility. It’s one of the best in the SEC. There was no atmosphere. There was no energy. It doesn’t all lay at the feet of the previous coaching staff. It was just the way it was.
Vitale: The Tony Barbee era was so bad. There was not a very competitive team. Bruce Pearl obviously had his faults coming in but has been a consistent winner at every stop in his career, and getting a coach of that caliber just brought legitimacy to the program.
Goodman: I was working with him at ESPN at the time, and I remember him telling me the Auburn job was his and he was going to take it. I looked at him and I was like, “Really? You want Auburn?” Auburn at that point was as bad as it got in the Power 5. I thought he’s going to get that gig and make them competitive. Maybe they can get to the NCAA Tournament one, maybe two, out of every four years. It will be fun, they are going to be excited, but it’s all about football. They are going to forget about basketball for the most part.
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Anders: Just by his sheer presence Bruce changed the atmosphere of Auburn basketball. He was positive, happy to be here, he exuded enthusiasm and he was very charismatic. So, he changed things immediately just by being who he is.
Hart: Bruce came in with this incredible amount of energy. He is a salesman at heart. He was selling the program, not just to recruits, but to the fan base. That interest exploded overnight, solely based on his energy. Then, as the team started to win games, in the style in which they played and his mannerisms on the sideline, it sold the program nationally and they became nationally relevant. It’s very rare for something like that to happen overnight, but it feels like it happened overnight with Bruce.
Broadway: He came kind of under a cloud from his situation at Tennessee. He came to the Rotary Club in Huntsville a few days after he signed with Auburn. A lady who was not in the club stood up and asked him about what happened in Tennessee. He stood there and explained for 10 minutes his faults.
As Pearl began to build his program at Auburn, he also started drawing top recruits.
Pearl: I think the first-year team set the tone for what we’ve built on. The roster was physically challenged, but we kept on battling. What we did was establish that we were going to play hard and compete.
Vitale: Bruce Pearl always calls Austin Wiley the big piece, because he was the first real big-time recruit that committed. But he also made some incredibly smart signings with career guys like Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore in particular. Those guys really built the foundation for a successful program. You need those guys to build up success before you can get the big name guys.
Goodman: I remember I covered the Peach Jam and I covered (Jared) Harper. I’m thinking to myself, “The kid’s little, doesn’t really look the part. But he’s perfect for Bruce, ‘cause he’s an absolute killer.” He was like a fringe top-100 kid. So they did a good job mixing it all in, with more highly recruited kids, and then getting some guys that they evaluated. Mustapha Heron, even though he didn’t do a ton, he gave them credibility.
Hart: There was no question when (Pearl) got the job, that’s how they were going to be successful. He is a masterful recruiter, because it goes hand in hand with salesmanship. That’s the foundation for it. Then, the next step is getting those kids on campus and putting the ball in their hands. The SEC has long been, and will continue to be, one of the most athletic leagues in college basketball. You need superior athletes to succeed on a nightly basis. It also allowed him, by bringing in those athletes to play the style that he wanted to play, so all of that worked in tandem to rocket them up the SEC standings and get them into the national rankings from early on.
Broadway: We went from having a bunch of players no one wanted, to getting five-star players. Each year you saw the talent level improve. Now players are wanting to come to Auburn.
Auburn’s run to the Final Four almost ended before it started. The Tigers barely held on to beat New Mexico State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, 78-77; the Aggies missed late free throws and missed a shot at the buzzer that would have won the game.
Pearl: The first game is the toughest of all the games to win. New Mexico State was the toughest game we played in the tournament. The only time I can remember almost losing it like that was when we did lose it Jared’s freshman year against Missouri, the first round of the SEC Tournament. And it was kind of unfolding the same way. No matter how many times you practice what you want to do in those situations, until you get in that moment, you don’t know how you’re going to react. We obviously panicked and made our share of mistakes, which could have cost us the game. At the same time, we made enough really good plays against a really good team.
Vitale: That was a big wake-up call. Auburn was one of the hottest teams in the country, they were flying pretty high. They led that game by a decent margin and then it all just kind of slipped away. They very easily could have lost that game late. I think going in the locker room after that game, it kind of felt like they got woken up a little bit.
Smith: I felt relieved. I thought they were better than us. We were able to knock ’em off and I thought after that … I had feelings of joy because I realized how far we’d come, and how far it looked like we might go. Both teams played so hard and it was an incredible game to win.
Flanigan: We knew New Mexico State was really good, but I think after the end of the game when that final buzzer rang, it was all about the motto of the NCAA Tournament, which is to survive and advance.
Jeffreys: The emotions at the end of that game were crazy. They actually made a GIF of me on the bench because of my reaction of Bryce fouling the dude, and it went viral. That was probably the most emotional game of the tournament aside from the Final Four. Everybody expects the 12-seed to beat the 5-seed, so I think to get through that stereotype was big.
Voga: How many times have you seen a 12-seed hit a shot to beat a 5-seed? Plenty of times, right? So that thought had already gone through my head just because of how things were going because we didn’t close the game very well, even though we were up 10-12 points earlier in the game. It was a nervous time, but we did just enough to pull out a win.
Anders: I think Coach Pearl was smart enough and experienced enough as a coach that he appreciated the kind of talent that New Mexico State had. He knew they were going to be a very difficult matchup for us and if we weren’t ready to play, that was going to be hard.
Brown: That game had a lot of emotions. It was a very fast-pace, up-and-down type of game that came down to the last shot. It’s crazy because Coach Pearl said before the game that this game will be the hardest of them all and it most certainly was.
Broadway: We were lucky to come away with a win. I was more confident against playing Kansas later in the tournament than I was about that game.
Hart: Anytime I see finishes like that, the first thing I think is, “Now this team has a chance.” To win a national championship or make it to a Final Four, in that tournament setting, you have to catch a break somewhere. When that occurred, it stood out to me that this was the game Auburn caught the break that they’re going to need to take advantage of it.
Following the close win against New Mexico State, Auburn went on to handily defeat Kansas 89-75 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, after building a 51-25 halftime lead.
Smith: When I realized we were going to play Kansas, I realized we were playing one of the best teams from a talent and a coaching standpoint in the country, and I knew it would take an extra effort. I knew that we had to play better than we were; and I knew that we were all playing that way right now, and I certainly hoped that we could keep it rollin’, and we did.
Flanigan: When we watched the film and I actually had to scout for Kansas, going into that game we actually knew we were better than them. Obviously, they have the five-star recruits and they have a great history of basketball. At the end of the day, when we watched the film and we lined up Chuma against their guy and Austin and Jared against their guys, we thought that we had the best team, and in that game we showed it.
Pearl: The reality is our team was a better team than the Kansas team. I think (Kansas coach Bill Self) will say that. We’ve got some firepower. We have 10 guys that play and they all contribute. So, in some ways, it really wasn’t an upset; I thought the better team won.
Jeffreys: It was great for the program and the university. I felt the same way as I did with the Tennessee game because that was my scouting job, knew everything about Kansas, knew what they were trying to do. I knew the style of play they wanted to play and we succeeded against teams like that last year. They’re Kansas. It’s a historic program, our goal isn’t to beat Kansas, it was to win it all, it’s just another person in our way.
Vitale: That was maybe the most impressive performance I’ve ever watched a basketball team have. Sitting courtside, I was looking at plane tickets to the next round at the under 16-minute mark in the first half. Auburn was up like seven points and this basketball game was over, there was zero chance Kansas wins. It was a rout the whole time.
Voga: It was kind of like the Clemson game last year, but in reverse. We had a game plan and we executed it. We did a pretty good job of scheming for them, not necessarily taking away their best player, but taking away everyone else and that seemed to work.
Okeke: We already knew throughout the season what we were capable of and what we were trying to accomplish that whole season. Us and Kansas, that’s just two good teams going at it, and we were trying to make history and show that Auburn is competitive in not just football but basketball too.
Parker: It felt good, looking up to someone like Bill Self and you just beat his team by 20. It gives you a lot of confidence for the next round.
Anders: I’ll just never forget Bill Self having to call three timeouts in the first half to try and stop the onslaught. I think Auburn announced that they were going to be a factor in the NCAA Tournament with that performance that day.
The song “We’ve Got Jared” — adapted by Drew Crowson to the tune of “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies — became a cultural phenomenon — and theme of Auburn’s Final Four run.
Smith: I think Jared (Harper) became someone that you wanted to write a song about and have people buy into, and they certainly did. You could look back and say Jared was a leader of the team — he and Bryce Brown. They’re fully capable of making shot after shot after shot, and they had the courage to try it. It didn’t bother them if they missed. They were gonna shoot the ball the next time they got it. Jared deserved that song in my opinion.
Broadway: Everyone loves those players. They were great guys, and they still are. The students loved them, and the song was so pertinent to the team. Being in the Final Four meant so much to players.
Jeffreys: I think it was something that kind of excited everybody. Basketball wasn’t big in Auburn for a long time. We had a great season and this kind of showed that. It was one of those things where you can piece some songs and stuff like that to seasons. Like the 2010 championship for football is the “All I Do Is Win” song. You put stuff together, and it just happens.
Vitale: It was really catchy and it hit Twitter at the right time. I think the key was one of the players retweeted it and that’s when it started to take off. Once the players got a hold of it, then it became a real thing.
Voga: Tunes like that have to be catchy. You think about “Baby Shark,” which in and of itself isn’t all that great of a song, but it’s such a catchy song that you think about it in your head all the time. For a tune like “We’ve Got Jared” in a place like Auburn, (it) caused the fans to latch on. I think that song helped to unite and bring everyone together.
Anders: The song really reminded me of my childhood when people used to write those kinds of songs about Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson. I just thought here we are, we’re a basketball school. We’ve got our student body and people who are Auburn loyalists writing songs about our basketball players. I thought it was pretty cool.
Okeke: The song came out, and everyone on the team liked it. The fan base caught on to it, Auburn’s band played it during halftime of the North Carolina game, and it was crazy.
Brown: The song was amazing and funny as well. I believe that happened because people were proud to be an Auburn basketball fan, and that was a cool and unique way to express it.
Auburn lost Chuma Okeke to an ACL injury in the second half against North Carolina. They still won 97-80, but would have to face Kentucky again without one of their leading scorers.
Smith: He was one of the major reasons we were winning. He was starting to come into his own, and becoming a high draft choice possibility for the pros. He became a force, and that tournament allowed people to see how good he was. The guy was extremely talented and the injury probably kept us from winning the whole thing.
Pearl: We were pretty emotional. It’s a bittersweet accomplishment because of Chuma getting hurt late in the game. Nobody works harder, nobody gives us more courage.
MORE: Pearl gets emotional discussing Okeke’s injury
Jeffreys: I was still confident because then the guys were playing for Chuma, like I thought they would rally around him and kind of do it for him. We still had confidence, we still had a good game plan and then the guys played absolutely incredible. Bruce said that we’re not going to replace Chuma with one player, we’re going to have to do it as a unit.
Flanigan: You really have to be a part of our team and our staff to understand what actually was going through our mind and how much Chuma meant to our team. Some of our guys looked at him as the little brother. So, when he went down, we were all concerned about the next game. But we were ready to take on the challenge and what it did, it actually rallied us.
Vitale: Chuma was an incredible player, not the leading scorer on that team but probably the most talented player. To lose him the way they did, and it be that emotional, I didn’t know if they could rebound from that in two days.
Goodman: I thought they were done. I was at the Carolina game. Without him I said to myself, “All right, this is where it ends. I remember thinking about it, and they got Kentucky next, no shot. I mean there is just no shot without their best defender, and that was the biggest thing — not so much that they needed him on the offensive end. But who’s going to guard Tyler Herro? Tyler Herro is going to go off now. Nobody is going to be able to guard him or PJ Washington. I mean you could put Chuma on whoever you wanted, and he can guard them. So I just thought, “OK, this is it. They’re going to get blasted by Kentucky in this next game without Chuma.”
Voga: We were the underdog for sure, especially after losing to Kentucky twice with Chuma, so it was just a sheer matter of refusing to lose. It was a team we were familiar with, which made us more hopeful and we had a good feel for what they were trying to do.
Neumann: I was very scared for a second, but then I realized that other guys are just going to step up and play better. It was definitely going to be a readjustment.
Brown: My thoughts, along with all my other teammates’ thoughts at that point, was to just do it for Chuma and that became our slogan for the rest of the year.
One of the inspirational moments of the Kentucky game was in the second half, when Chuma Okeke was wheeled into the arena behind the Auburn bench.
Vitale: I think Chuma showing up, rolling into the arena a little after halftime, I think that changed a lot of things. You could feel Auburn get into that “win it for Chuma” mode and that really helped them down the stretch. Obviously Jared Harper scoring 12 of the last 17 points helped too.
Smith: They talk about emotions helping you win games and getting you fired up. Knowing that somebody like that comes in and is there for you, that’s a part of sports that some people probably don’t understand. But, a little gift like that happening — him coming in — was good enough to push us into being a better team.
Flanigan: Even for me as an assistant coach, and being a former player, sitting there, we were actually struggling at that particular time. Kentucky was being really physical with us, but to see him come out there, and for our fans to go crazy, it uplifted me and our guys and as close as they were to Chuma.
Okeke: I felt like just by me being there, that was giving them another boost to remember why we came this far and it was not just for me but it was to let everyone know that Auburn is a basketball school.
Brown: He gave us more hope. We thought he wasn’t going to make it to the game because he was in so much pain the night before, but he found a way and we just wanted to leave it all on the line for him.
Jeffreys: I think it just showed how close-knit of a family we were last season. Some people were like, “Oh, they did that on purpose to inspire the team,” but Chuma was in the hotel, he missed being with the dudes. I think it was more of, “I’m here for you guys, you’re my brothers, let’s do this together.”
Goodman: You could see it, I was right across from it. I remember seeing it, the team looking, the fans going crazy, it was just a cool scene. I think it certainly gave them a little bit of energy. You just can’t put a price on the emotion that something like that gives them.
Anders: Did it have an impact on us winning the game? I don’t think so. We won that game because of the fortitude of those guys and they were just not going to let Kentucky beat us again. Even though Chuma was out they sucked it up and pulled it together and figured out a way to beat a team that probably had more talent. It was one of the most awesome moments in Auburn athletics history.
Auburn struggled against Kentucky without Okeke; it took overtime — and a vintage performance from Jared Harper — to beat Kentucky 77-71 and advance to the Final Four.
Jeffreys: I remember Horace Spencer shooting a 3 at the end of regulation and everyone was losing their minds going into overtime. We battled back, we were down however many points it was, we got 5 minutes, let’s refocus and we got this.
Smith: If a game went into overtime, I thought our chances of winning that game were better. We had the threat of 3-point shooting on the perimeter in three positions and we also had great free-throw shooters if they were to foul us. We had inside players that could go get baskets and become mismatches too. So, I thought, anytime we got into overtime, we had the possibility of winning that game. And we did.
Vitale: I remember how Jared Harper wouldn’t be denied. He had the ability to take over games when things weren’t going well. Auburn didn’t play that great of an offensive game that day, but he got the basket, got to the free throw line, and that was Jared Harper saying, “We’re going to the Final Four and I’m going to make it happen.”
Anders: He was the difference in that overtime period. Especially the defense we put on some of their guards. I’ll never forget the last play of regulation where we blocked two shots, which was really miraculous. I’ll just never forget Jared really putting the team on his back and willing us to the Final Four with his performance.
Brown: What I remember most about the overtime was the final seconds as we were dribbling the clock and out about to celebrate. Once the buzzer went off, there was an immediate shock of excitement that went through my body and I couldn’t really believe that it was actually happening. We are going to the Final Four.
After defeating three blue bloods in a row, Auburn’s confidence was high, even though it was now matched up with No. 1 seed Virginia.
Brown: We felt great going into the matchup. We knew we were rolling and our confidence was through the roof. Their seeding didn’t matter to us because we had just knocked off every blue blood and we knew there was no stopping us.
Parker: We were very confident going into that game after beating UNC and almost beating Duke. We played a lot of good teams and they were just another stepping stone and we were ready for them.
Hart: After the blue bloods that they ran through, you certainly thought that Auburn had a great opportunity. They were a very well-rounded team, but it was going to be a clash of styles. I thought that Auburn was a team that found more possessions based on their ability to turn the other team over and that was a key to the ball sharing for that Auburn team. You had a lot of guys that wanted the ball in their hands, but there was only one ball. How do you satisfy everyone? You get more possessions by turning teams over, by being more active in the passing lanes and Jared Harper was incredibly good both on the ball and off the ball defensively.
Vitale: There were so many reasons to believe that the run was going to end. Auburn played North Carolina, one of the best teams in the country. They played Kentucky without Chuma Okeke, their best player. But after they get to the Final Four you start thinking there is no logic. I just assumed Auburn was going to keep winning because that’s what they had done for so long. But the matchup with Virginia was really tough, especially without Chuma. Going into that game, Auburn has beaten everyone else, why not beat Virginia?
Goodman: I just thought it was preordained that Virginia was going to win this whole thing after what happened the year before. So, again, I was kinda counting Auburn out. For the most part thinking they will stay with them because they are tough and they guard and all that. But ultimately I thought they wouldn’t win that game. I just thought Virginia had too much talent overall.
Voga: I knew it was going to be a challenge, because Virginia locks up a lot of people. But we had one of the top offenses in the country, so it was just a matter of us getting good looks and making our shots. I think we had proved that Auburn belonged there in the Final Four, that it wasn’t a fluke, we made it a close game and that is all you can really ask for at that stage.
Anders: I was just so proud that we were there. It was a bucket list moment for myself personally. To be able to see my team, my school was in the Final Four. Just being there was really amazing for me. I really felt like we matched up well against Virginia. I thought we could play with them and as it turned out we could.
Hart: I thought that Virginia had been uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball in big games last year. I think they averaged seven turnovers a game, but it seemed like in big games they were finishing with 10, 11 or 12 turnovers. It was terribly uncharacteristic of a Tony Bennett-led team, especially that team. I thought they could cause some issues for Virginia, specifically Virginia’s backcourt. Those are two very confident — borderline cocky — guards. From what I saw from those guys, especially (Ty) Jerome, when he started to go head-to-head with other guards, he kind of let his bravado through — to the detriment of the team. I viewed that as a win for Auburn in a matchup advantage.
Broadway: I mean, we beat all these teams. It didn’t matter which teams were ranked what. Had we gotten a better seed, it would have been a different story. We would have beaten Texas Tech. I didn’t think we would have lost to Virginia, either.
As Auburn and Virginia fans remember, the game ended with a controversial no-call of a Ty Jerome double dribble.
Smith: I’ll tell ya what. … It was right by our broadcasting area. The official was standing between us and the double dribble. We did not see it. But there was a man that was associated with the officials — he was there as the guy to coordinate them. He started hollerin’ behind us: “That was a double dribble! That was a double dribble!” And the crowd was going crazy. But Rod and I were unable to see that play. And, for another reason, I jumped up to see who he was gonna pass that ball to down the court. Unfortunately, he’s passing it to the guy that made those three free throws. That is unbelievable, that an official would miss it.
Okeke: My response was yelling at the TV screen as soon as it happened. I didn’t need a replay for that. It’s all good, and I guess everything happens for a reason. I was very surprised when the ref didn’t call that.
Brown: Everybody knows how I feel about that game. We were definitely robbed and it’s just unfortunate as players that we don’t have any control over it.
Parker: No one really caught it in the moment, but it was definitely a double dribble. That’s something you expect the referee to call right there. He didn’t call it, we had an opportunity, but they just made the right play.
Broadway: Oh, my gosh. That was awful. How do you miss that? I was sitting a few rows back from the court. If I see it, how does the ref on the court miss it?
Vitale: I didn’t think anything that happened late was completely egregious.
Goodman: I didn’t think it was as bad as people were saying it was. I thought he kinda got hit a little bit, so I didn’t have as much of an issue with that as some did.
Voga: There are calls that are made and not made throughout the entire game, but everybody always remembers the last call. If we would’ve made more free throws, maybe we would win that game or if Ty Jerome didn’t hit that fadeaway 3 in the corner. We were never put in that position, so you have to give Virginia credit for making plays the entire game.
MORE: Looking at the most controversial calls in NCAA Tournament history
Anders: Those things happen fast and human nature is part of the game. I certainly take my queues from my coach who told me to forget about it and move on and that things happen. It was disappointing and it certainly prevented us from winning the ball game. The human element is part of sports and it came into play there. I’m just proud that we were behind by nine points and made such an awesome comeback there at the end. It’ll stay at the top of my list of most disappointing defeats as an Auburn guy.
Jeffreys: I didn’t see it during the game. I thought it got tipped and I definitely didn’t recognize it as a double dribble. Nobody on our bench did either.
Flanigan: For me, and even for your players, we knew that there were some things in that game that we could’ve done better to have a better outcome. I vividly remember, before they made the first 3, Coach was talking about switching to take away the 3-point shot, and we don’t actually carry it out. There were some things through the course of that game that we knew deep down that we could’ve executed a little bit better. We could’ve been in the national championship game.
Pearl: Let’s not remember this game because of just how it ended. Let’s remember two teams that played really hard, that only had 13 turnovers combined, didn’t shoot it very well because there was great defense. It had nothing to do with the sight lines or the rims. It was a great college basketball game.
Virginia’s Kyle Guy missed what would have been a game-winning 3-pointer at the end of regulation, sending Auburn fans into a frenzy at the idea of playing in the national championship. But Samir Doughty was called for a foul during the shot, awarding Guy three free throws; he made all of them to lead Virginia to a 63-62 win over Auburn.
Smith: Oh, we were crushed. We were crushed. The reason we were was because we had jumped up — celebrated like we’re in the final game. All of a sudden, we’re not in the final game. We thought for sure. … You know, he missed that shot by a mile. But … the foul… when that happened, we did not see the foul. We thought that it was not a foul. So, we jumped up and celebrated like we had won it. After that … you can imagine going from thinking you’re gonna win to being knocked out on a bad call.
Jeffreys: Yeah, so you were at the Final Four, right? We saw the shot go up. I remember I was at the free throw line to collect stats or whatever because I was thinking we just won. ‘Cause it was so loud we couldn’t hear the whistle, so it wasn’t until the ref came to the opposite free throw line with his arm up and we were like, “Aw, s—t. He called a foul.” And we all retreated to the bench. It was one of those moments where we didn’t see what was happening and it wasn’t until we looked at replays after that we saw the play.
Pearl: Don’t let it define the game. Then you’re taking away from Ty Jerome or you’re taking away from Anfernee McLemore with 12 rebounds, or Bryce Brown almost leading Auburn back to an incredible come-from-behind victory. I’d love for that to be the story.
Goodman: I think it could have gone either way, the foul. It’s tough in the closing minutes. I’m generally not one who questions the officials, and I don’t think it was so egregious. You could have called it either way, then Kyle Guy comes up and he makes three of the biggest free throws you’re ever going to see in college basketball history. The fact that they were that close, the fact that Bruce got them to the Final Four, one of the truly most amazing feats since I’ve been covering the sport.
Hart: I thought it was a foul. I don’t think you can interfere with a shooter. The timing is always unfortunate, but we talked about Virginia being a backcourt-led team and that’s their strength. Virginia is so good at making plays late in the clock and late in the game, because they don’t panic. You watch other teams late in the clock, either the game clock or shot clock, and they have a propensity for shooting too early or for rushing into a shot. Virginia never does that, because they’re so used to it that they know they’re going to get the look that they want. As a result, that confidence helps them get calls like that.
Neumann: That was one of the worst moments. It was crushing for the student section, but devastating for the team. We were confused. We thought we won, but then it became, “Oh, wait.” There was nothing we could do. I was crying in the front row, and “SportsCenter” was filming us. It was like watching your dreams slowly get crushed.
Vitale: I think the thing that sticks out to me the most was not the end of the game, but Samir Doughty after. Because he was the guy who got called for the foul that basically changed the game. Bryce Brown was walking down the tunnel toward the locker room, shouting at the refs. Samir was the one who calmed him down. In the locker room, he was very calm. He answered every single question and he handled it like a pro. That’s what will stick with me most, not the end of the game.
After the heartbreak of the semifinals, did you watch the final game?
Smith: Oh, yeah, we all did that. I don’t know if the team did it or not, but we did. I did not think Virginia would win the national championship, I really didn’t. Congratulations to them. It actually made us look good that they beat us, It was sensational, it was exciting, it was great for Auburn basketball. It put us in the eyes of the press and the rest of the country, and a little bit of a higher rating. And, there’s more to come, actually.
Vitale: I stuck around in Minneapolis to watch it. I think Auburn would have beaten Texas Tech. But that’s sports, you can always say what if.
Brown: I didn’t watch it because I felt like we deserved to be there.
What will be your strongest takeaway from Auburn’s Final Four run?
Smith: We’re there. We’re a part of this “basketball” thing. We’re a part of this top 25. We’re a part of the situation where preseason they will be talking about us more. To me, it was a step into the limelight — the “elite.” I think Bruce Pearl is the kind of coach that’s gonna keep us there.
Jeffreys: It was great for the university, but we’re not finished. Our motto this year is “make history.” We were at the Final Four last year, but at the end of the day, we still lost. We didn’t win our last game so let’s go win it.
Vitale: What I will remember most is just how loose and confident that team was. I remember after the New Mexico State game in the tunnel, Samir Doughty was seeing what the postgame meal was going to be, Malik Dunbar was singing, laughing and joking. There was just incredible confidence. They felt like they could beat anyone no matter who they played, and for a long time they did. Auburn basketball had been nonexistent for so long, it was there but it wasn’t anything that mattered. So to see a team be that confident in its abilities and then back it up on the court and bring Auburn to a level it had never been before, that’s what stands out to me.
Goodman: Watching Bruce get that far, and the fire, the intensity, what he had done for Auburn basketball, it just blows your mind to think what he’s been able to do in the last few years, to this program to not only where they got to a Final Four but to where they are sustaining success is crazy.
Anders: I’m immensely proud of those guys who made it that far. It’s what I enjoyed the most, watching Auburn play basketball. I was just very proud to be there and very thankful.
Neumann: You can’t count a team out.We weren’t a well-respected team, but we made it that far. It brought us together and unified the school. That’s the power of sports.
Okeke: This is what we came to Auburn to do. These small recruits, not really recruited by big schools. We wanted to prove that we could play with any player in the country. Together, we could compete with any team in the country, and we changed the way people viewed our basketball program.
Brown: My biggest takeaway is that I will be remembered as a player who played a large role for Auburn in helping them make a Final Four run, and that I will be a part of a team that will be remembered forever when you talk about the greatest Auburn teams.
Flanigan: Perseverance and persistence. We talk about a team and a program that throughout the course of history, we have been kind of fighting this uphill battle. No matter who the coach was or who was in that locker room, it has been this uphill battle. Obviously, we get lucky enough to bring Bruce Pearl into our family. Walking onto that floor was a special moment for me, seeing how far our program has come.
Hart: It felt like the capper on what Bruce Pearl was building, in terms of getting five-star players to Auburn, using momentum to go on a late season run and putting that together. But I think there’s still unfinished business for him and for this program.
The interviews for this oral history were conducted by the students of an advanced sports reporting class at Auburn University, under the direction of journalism professor John Carvalho. The students who conducted the interviews were Wil Crews (Josh Vitale), Jovan Cutler (Chuma Okeke), Hayden Desmond (Ron Anders), Levi Fitzwater (Tom Hart), Rhys Ferguson (Cody Voga), Kennedy Gooden (Lane Neumann), Will Grice (Myles Parker), Sam Humphrey (Maddux Jeffreys), Kaitlin Kiernan (Wes Flanigan), J.D. McCarthy (Jeff Goodman), Mary Leigh Olson (Bob Broadway), Alexa Patti (Sonny Smith) and Elaina Strother (Bryce Brown).
The students and Dr. Carvalho would like to thank everyone who took time out from their busy schedules to do the interviews. Particular thanks to Cody Voga, basketball SID, who was our patient contact for several interviews, including his own. We would also like to thank Benson Taylor, Sporting News editor-in-chief, for accepting this project for publication; Jason Foster, SN deputy editor, who combed through a massive Google doc as the editor; and Michael DeCourcy, SN college basketball columnist (and a participant in our oral history of March Madness two years ago), who served as our initial contact on the project.
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