By John Marshall
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Bruce Pearl’s Auburn rebuilding project took a massive leap.
The Tigers are headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years.
Bryce Brown scored 25 points and hit seven 3-pointers, leading Auburn to an 89-75 takedown of mighty Kanas Saturday night in the Midwest Region.
The Tigers (28-9) were a surprise last season, earning a share of their first SEC title since 1999 and winning an NCAA Tournament game.
Auburn took another major step Saturday, running past a blue-blood program into the school’s first Sweet 16 since 2003 under Cliff Ellis.
Unlike their opener against New Mexico State, when they had to survive a couple of late-game blunders, the fifth-seeded Tigers pounced on the undermanned Jayhawks and never let them up.
Auburn had a 17-point lead before the midpoint of the first half and kept pouring in shots, hitting 13 3-pointers while shooting 53 percent against one of the college basketball’s premier programs.
Next up: top-seeded North Carolina or No. 9 Washington in Kansas City.
The Jayhawks (26-10) hoped they would get the ticket to KC, where they would essentially play Sweet 16 home games as the No. 4 seed.
Bill Self’s bunch got gut punched early and never climbed off the canvas, bounced from the NCAA Tournament in the second round after reaching the Final Four a year ago.
Dedric Lawson had 25 points and 10 rebounds in what could be his final game in KU red and blue.
Kansas fought through a tumultuous season and its first non-Big 12 title in 14 years by rolling over Northeastern in its NCAA Tournament opener.
The Jayhawks’ second game figured to be all about ball control.
Auburn is one of the nation’s best at creating turnovers and Kansas is one of the worst at coughing them up.
Advantage on paper, advantage on the court; Auburn had three steals in the first four minutes.
A bigger problem for Kansas was the Tigers ran their offense like a Formula One car. Whipping quick passes around to set up open shots, Auburn made six of its first eight 3-pointers to race out to a 17-point lead in the opening eight minutes.
With Kansas having to extend its defense, the inside opened up for the Tigers, who made 20 of 36 shots lead 51-25 by halftime. Brown was 6 of 8 from 3 and had 17 points by the break.
The Jayhawks found an offensive rhythm to open the second half, making their first seven shots.
They made up one point.
Auburn hit seven of its first eight shots and kept the steamrolling going with a series of dunks and transition layups.
A tough season ended with a thud for Kansas. The Jayhawks didn’t have the manpower to match the Tigers and were bounced from the bracket early after reaching at least the Elite Eight the previous three seasons.
Auburn made a huge statement on college basketball’s biggest stage with an impressive offensive performance.
Auburn plays North Carolina or Washington in the Sweet 16 Thursday in Kansas City.