How Auburn's humiliating loss in Rupp sparked an Elite Eight run
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Auburn remembers how it felt sitting in the Rupp Arena locker room after an 80-53 loss on national television.
"Embarrassed," Jared Harper said.
"Manhandled," Austin Wiley felt.
"A little emotional," Bryce Brown added.
"Pissed," per J'Von McCormick.
The Tigers entered that CBS-televised matchup with clear intentions. They wanted payback for a two-point loss in Auburn Arena earlier in the season. They planned to enact that revenge in front of the college basketball world, in a historic basketball venue, against one of the most illustrious programs in the country.
Auburn didn't just have hope it would win. The Tigers knew it was going to happen. They felt like they were the better team, and they thought the blowout win over Arkansas the Wednesday before proved they were playing better basketball.
Then, they got a wakeup call.
"We actually thought we were going to go in there and win. But that’s not easy for no program to do," Samir Doughty said. "For the people that have done that the past few years, I give all credit to them. They had to come in there super focused and locked in. It wasn’t the case for us that night."
Kentucky played like it was Kentucky. The Wildcats dominated the Tigers on the glass, winning the rebounding battle 43-24. Kentucky made three more 3-pointers than Auburn did. The Wildcats had more points in the paint, fast-break points and second-chance points. PJ Washington played like the SEC player of the year type he is, scoring 24. Keldon Johnson rebounded like a man unable to be contained, hauling in 17 boards.
Simply put: the box score, from Auburn's perspective, was horrendous.
What made matters worse — or maybe looking back, more manageable — the Tigers didn't think they played a bad game. They thought the Wildcats, in front of their home fans, were exceptional.
"Going into the game, we were really confident thinking that we could go in and shock people with the win at Kentucky. I don’t know if we really played bad. We played OK. We didn’t play as well as we would’ve wanted to. But I think Kentucky played really well in that game," Harper said. "They hit a lot of shots. They made a lot of good shots. They had a great team. They have pros on their team. They have pros that are going to play like that."
Still, Auburn walked back to the post-game locker room stunned by such impressive defeat.
All those feelings — embarrassed, manhandled, emotional, pissed — were let out in the Rupp Arena locker room. As the players tell it, Bruce Pearl walked in and was honest about what had just unfolded in Lexington. Wiley joked he couldn't give the exact speech from Pearl without a "censored version."
Some of Auburn's players tried their best to re-enact that moment.
"Coach was on us, man," Brown said, shaking his head.
"Coach just called us out honestly," Doughty said. "Coach was pretty much just being honest with us and telling us that we wasn’t ourselves."
"He basically said that they won. They won the game," McCormick said. "We got whooped."
"He pretty much said we played soft," per Wiley's censored recount.
Pearl doesn't recall being so tough.
"I left the game and I wanted our guys not to beat themselves up. That's a Final Four team guys. That's what it looks like right there. This is the gap between us and them, 27 points right now. What do we need to do to close the gap? I wasn't mad at them," Pearl said. "We got hit in the mouth and we got beat up. But we didn't let it define us."
Let's clarify that: The Tigers didn't let it define them — in a negative way.
Everything Auburn has done since then has been defined by its response to the Rupp meltdown. It's riding an 11-game winning streak since that Feb. 23 defeat. The Tigers have demolished Tennessee, Kansas and North Carolina along the way. They're playing like a team that completely forgot how undressed it was against Kentucky.
"Just knowing that’s one game. You can look at the Warriors. They can beat a team one night and might face them another time and lose by 20. Don’t let that one game turn into three or four games," Harper said. "We let that one game be behind us and continued to do what we know we have to do to be in a position to win. ... Let’s not let this turn into three or four games. Try to rebound and learn from our mistakes and that loss as much as we can."
That's exactly what Auburn has done.
It did it against Georgia and Mississippi State and Alabama and Tennessee and Missouri and South Carolina and Florida and Tennessee again and New Mexico State and North Carolina and Kansas. Auburn didn't think about Kentucky. The Tigers thought about the opponent ahead.
It's harder for the Tigers to put it behind them now as they look at what's ahead. It's only right for Kentucky to be the only team standing between Auburn and the first Final Four appearance in program history.
The Tigers wouldn't want it any other way.
"It’s going to be a lot of emotions going into the game," Brown said. "We’re glad we got that matchup."
It's an opportunity to prove they were right the first time — that they're good enough to beat Kentucky on the biggest stage.
"I think part of me is definitely glad," Harper said. "Just knowing how we faced off against Kentucky this year, losing a close one and the second one getting embarrassed, I think that's big for us to get the win that matters. We're ready now. We've got our chance."