AUBURN, Ala. — As Bruce Pearl was leaving the media room in Auburn Arena on Wednesday after the No. 10 Tigers’ 76-66 win over Kentucky, he gave one more pep talk to his center, Anfernee McLemore.
“It’s your show, Ant,” Pearl said, calling McLemore by his nickname. “It’s your world, baby. Your world.”
It definitely was McLemore’s world Wednesday night.
McLemore scored 13 points and corralled 11 rebounds in the victory, which marked the sophomore’s first career double-double in SEC play. Not bad for an undersized, under-recruited center who was playing against the fourth-tallest team in college basketball.
“Anfernee is a 6-foot-7, shot-blocking 3-point shooter that plays center,” Pearl said a few minutes before ceding the podium to McLemore. “That’s a tough matchup.”
That’s right. Against Kentucky — a team with six McDonalds All-Americans who are built for the positionless basketball trend that is sweeping the game at all levels — McLemore was the matchup nightmare.
McLemore, who only had two power-conference offers other than Auburn, drained a pair of 3-pointers in the first half against Kentucky. His first triple was only Auburn’s second of the game, after it missed nine straight in an ice-cold start to the contest.
“That’s just hard to guard,” Auburn junior shooting guard Bryce Brown said. “When you’ve got a guy as athletic as Ant, you try to keep him from scoring around the rim. But you’ve got a guy who can step out and knock down that shot.”
The sequence that followed his first 3-pointer was uniquely McLemore. After hitting a corner 3-pointer, he ran back down the floor and anchored Auburn’s defense. He swatted a layup attempt from Kentucky’s Hamadou Diallo, and it immediately turned into a layup on the other end for Auburn’s Malik Dunbar.
A few minutes later, McLemore hit another 3-pointer to give Auburn a lead it wouldn’t relinquish until midway through the second half.
“I like to think that they came within the offense,” McLemore said. “I don’t really think they were big shots, and I felt confident shooting them. Just think it was another shot to diminish that lead in the first half.”
McLemore has now hit 18 shots from 3-point range this season. As a freshman last season, he only attempted one 3-pointer. Now, on a team that loves to spread the floor and get as many deep shots as possible, McLemore is a weapon.
“We’re all really impressed with Ant, because he worked really hard in the offseason on that jump shot,” Brown said. “It’s finally paying off. He’s a hard worker, and I would expect nothing less from what he’s doing.”
In the second half, McLemore had another sequence that perfectly described his game. He forced a steal — once again from Diallo — to set up a transition jumper from Brown that gave Auburn the lead.
After Kentucky missed its next shot, McLemore ran the floor and threw down an alley-oop on the other end. On the ensuing possession, McLemore blocked Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. In the span of less than a minute, he brought a nervous Auburn Arena crowd to its loudest roar of the season.
“I just feed off the energy from the building, I guess,” McLemore said. “They were hyped, so I was hyped. I just started jumping higher and throwing down the oop.”
Down the stretch, McLemore sealed his double-double with strong defensive rebounding against the much taller Wildcats. Eight of his 11 rebounds came in the second half, with four coming in the final four minutes. During that span, Kentucky didn’t hit a single field goal.
“When they went on their run, we kind of got into our own little team huddle and said, ‘We need to get a stop,'” McLemore said. “We’d trade buckets with them, and we kind of said, ‘We need to get a stop right now,’ and one stop led to another, and then we got out on our own run.”
McLemore’s offense set the tone for a memorable night, and his defense and rebounding wrapped it up. In a game that was almost exclusively played by former blue-chippers, the former 3-star stole the show down the stretch.
“Anfernee is just unique. He’s a unique player. How many 1600-4.0s can shoot the 3-ball and block shots like that?” Pearl said, referring to McLemore’s SAT score and GPA in high school. “He’s just a unique guy. He’s confident, and he was a matchup problem for them.”
When Pearl said that, McLemore — who was seated on the other side of the room — grinned and put his head in his hands. He still doesn’t seem used to this much attention in a sea of higher-rated recruits.
And he wasn’t fully expecting his type of performance against one of college basketball’s big-name programs.
“I’d say it surprised me a little bit,” McLemore said with a smile. “I feel like I am capable of playing like this, but against a team as talented as Kentucky, it is a little surprising.”
If McLemore puts on more shows like that, it won’t be that way for long.
The post In talent-filled Auburn-Kentucky game, former 3-star Anfernee McLemore shines brightest appeared first on SEC Country.