MINNEAPOLIS — It hadn’t really hit Anfernee McLemore yet. Of course, he knew what Auburn had accomplished, the history the program had made. But it still seemed so surreal.
Then he got off the bus at the team hotel and saw his face, along with his teammates’, plastered to the side of the building.
“You just think, ‘Wow,’” the junior center said Thursday. “‘You really just made it to the Final Four. This is happening.’”
It is. Auburn has been playing basketball for 113 years. The NCAA Tournament has existed for 81 of those. This is the first time in program history that the Tigers have been among the Final Four. They’ll face Virginia in a national semifinal Saturday (5:09 p.m.) for the right to play in Monday’s national championship game.
“It’s just amazing being able to be here,” center Horace Spencer said. “I’m a senior in my last year, and I got to the Final Four.”
Getting here has been a whirlwind. The final buzzer on Auburn’s 77-71 overtime victory over Kentucky in the regional final sounded at 3:50 p.m. this past Sunday. The trophy had been awarded and the nets cut down by 4:20. The Tigers were on a plane home from Kansas City, Missouri, at 6:30. They were welcomed back to Auburn Arena by hundreds of fans just before 11 p.m.
Sixteen hours later, they were back for a 3 p.m. Monday afternoon meeting that set the tone for the week ahead. Tuesday featured media commitments — coach Bruce Pearl with local reporters, players with three networks that had set up shop on campus — and practice. The hundreds of fans were back at Auburn Arena on Wednesday afternoon to see the team off to Minneapolis.
“Auburn is going to the Final Four!” Pearl shouted to the gathered faithful, eliciting cheers. “Now it’s our job to show that we belong."
Players had time to go to class during the short time they were home between that Sunday night flight in and Wednesday afternoon flight out. That doesn’t mean each player made it to each of their classes, but they did have time to. And if they did, they were mobbed by pretty much everyone on campus, students and professors alike.
“A lot of people stopped us and showed me love on the way to class and everything, taking pictures. A lot of professors just stopped by and said congratulations,” McLemore said. “A couple of autographs, a lot of pictures — it has just been absolutely amazing on campus.”
Things have only intensified since the team arrived in the Twin Cities. Players were greeted by a drumline getting off the plane. Early Thursday morning, they practiced on the raised court set up inside the cavernous U.S. Bank Stadium — the home of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings that was empty then but will be filled by nearly 70,000 people Saturday night.
"I really didn't know it was a football stadium we were playing in, so it definitely caught me off guard," senior guard Bryce Brown said. “We are just now getting adjusted and focusing so we are ready when game day gets here."
That was maybe the easiest part of the day Thursday. Basketball is what they came here to do. The next two hours are filled with a seemingly endless stream of reporters, cameras and media appearances, with golf carts whisking jersey-clad players between each one of them.
They sat down for interviews and posed for the CBS broadcast graphics packages, one of which featured a video board behind them and a live audience in front of them. Point guard Jared Harper played the saxophone, a talent that appears to have been previously hidden.
And that was only after 25 minutes with easily more than 100 print, digital and television reporters in a locker room so packed that there was hardly room to walk around. Brown walked in a few minutes late and couldn’t get to his locker next to Harper, so a member of Auburn’s communications staff set up a chair for him five feet to the left. Fifteen reporters quickly followed.
“This is a crazy. It’s almost like an NBA locker room, really,” backup point J’Von McCormick said.
“So many people are paying attention to us now. It wasn’t like that at the beginning of the season, and honestly, at the end of the season. It wasn’t like that until the SEC Tournament. So it’s just wild seeing where it has come from,” walk-on Will Macoy said from one of the quieter corners of the locker room, situated next to classic Mortal Kombat and Marvel vs. Capcom game machines.
“We’re not used to it, so we like the attention.”
Still, it can be exhausting — Auburn had time available to practice at the nearby University of Minnesota on Thursday afternoon, but Pearl decided his team would skip it and practice twice Friday instead.
"These are long days," Pearl said. "We've got to get the kids back to the hotel, get them something to eat, get them off their feet. But we had a good day."
And through it all, Auburn remained the close-knit, loose and fun-loving team it has been throughout an incredible postseason run that has taken it to Nashville, Tenn., for the SEC tournament; Salt Lake City for the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament; Kansas City for the round of 16 and final eight; and now Minneapolis. That’s 8,500 miles flown and 16 days away from home over a span of just three weeks.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at the players. One media outlet gave walk-on Myles Parker a microphone, and he ran around the locker room joking with every teammate and coach he could. Harper asked Danjel Purifoy if he knew how to spell Minneapolis, and the junior forward burst out laughing when he could not. Austin Wiley promoted the Tigers’ call of “Do it for Chuma” in honor of injured teammate Chuma Okeke, singing and dancing with teammates along the way.
“The guys are loving it,” Spencer said. “Everyone here is smiling, enjoying themselves, which is what really matters. You got to have fun with it.”
That hasn’t been hard for this team; not on a stage most players can only dream about reaching, not with the experiences it presents. On Thursday night, they went to the Final Four Fan Fest, spoke with longtime CBS play-by-play man Jim Nantz and were surprised with a new pair of Under Armour shoes and a video message from two-time NBA MVP and three-time finals champion Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.
There will be even more Friday — more practice time, this time in front of fans; more media appearances, this time in front of even more reporters; and more activities unique to the biggest stage in college basketball.
But the Tigers won’t let all of that distract them from their ultimate goal.
“It’s a great experience. We’re trying to enjoy it as much as we can. It’s great,” Harper said. “But, at the end of the day, we’re here to win two games and win a national championship.”