KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As soon as Anfernee McLemore descended the ladder after cutting down the net, he presented it to the teammate perhaps most responsible for Auburn’s first trip to the Final Four.
Two days after Auburn’s sensational sophomore tore his left ACL, and two days before Okeke will undergo surgery to repair it, he celebrated the Tigers’ 77-71 overtime win vs. Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final.
“Chuma deserves it all, he deserves all the glory, he worked so hard to get to this point,” said McLemore, who scored eight points, grabbed five rebounds, made two steals and blocked two shots. “If I can cut it down again for him, I would, he deserves it all.”
Trailing 35-30 at halftime, the Tigers, to their surprise and delight, learned that Okeke would soon be arriving at Sprint Center from the team hotel a few blocks away.
“I asked him before the game if he was going to come,” said Bryce Brown, who scored 24 points and made every field goal he attempted in the second half. “Emotionally, he said, ‘I’m in too much pain to come.'”
Miraculously, the pain subsided when the game tipped off.
“Last night, I didn’t really get a lot of sleep because my knee was hurting,” Okeke said. “This morning I was really tired, and it was still hurting a little bit. But during the course of the game, I was watching on TV and it just stopped hurting, so I just decided to come on up.”
Resting on a table in the trainer’s room, Okeke wore a Final Four hat, his neck adorned by the net McLemore had given him minutes earlier.
“It made me feel good,” Okeke said. “They went out there and played hard with a man down. With me down, they played good basketball, especially being that Kentucky beat us two times in the regular season, so they came in here and did what they had to do.”
While the confetti flew at midcourt, Okeke again did the honors of advancing Auburn on the bracket board, just as he did in the locker room when the Tigers knocked off North Carolina on Friday.
“Above all, I’m just happy we got it for Chuma,” Brown said. “I know he wanted to be out there so bad. He could have made so many plays out there for us. This game was specifically for him, and we went out there and battled for him.”
“I know he’s happy,” said Samir Doughty, who tied Danjel Purifoy with a team-high seven rebounds. “I know he’s proud of us, because if he was out there, he would have made a huge difference.”
Before Bruce Pearl boarded the bus for the arena, he checked on Okeke in his hotel room, agreeing with Chuma’s decision to remain at the hotel. Okeke’s arrival in the second half, and his presence behind the Auburn bench, motivated his teammates as much as any halftime pep talk ever could.
“And it did give our team a tremendous lift,” Pearl said.
“It means a lot,” said Okeke, tired and sore but triumphant nonetheless. “This team is a real brotherhood. They just came out here and played hard and got the win.”
The Tigers had accomplished what they set out to do.
They did it for Chuma.
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jeff_shearer