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Pearl, Auburn entering stretch run without another big man

February 19, 2018

Auburn forward Anfernee McLemore (24) is carted off the court after an injury during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina defeated Auburn 84-75. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Coach Bruce Pearl doesn’t believe losing another post player will be a breaking point for an Auburn team on track for a rare Southeastern Conference men’s basketball title and NCAA Tournament berth.

The 12th-ranked Tigers must get it done without center Anfernee McLemore, out for the season following surgery to repair a fractured and dislocated left ankle.

Now, the already-undersized Tigers will try to close out the regular season and capture their first SEC title since 1999 and third overall without their top eligible big man. They’re virtual locks for their first tournament berth since 2003.

“There’s no breaking point for us,” Pearl said. “We’ve got a resilient, tenacious, gritty group of guys that are talented and hard-working and trusting and relying on one another. We have a terrific team.”

But one that must again figure out how to contend with even more significant size disadvantages.

Auburn (23-4, 11-3) has held out center Austin Wiley and forward Danjel Purifoy all season, leaving the Tigers as one of the smallest teams in major college basketball.

McLemore was hurt in Saturday’s loss to South Carolina. Pearl said the operation on Sunday “went extremely well” and that doctors think recovery will take about four months.

The 6-foot-7 McLemore was averaging 7.4 points and 5.3 rebounds while leading the league in blocked shots with 73. His ability to shoot 3-pointers also created some matchup issues for opposing teams.

“It’s a tough loss,” Pearl said. “Anfernee has had a wonderful season. The discipline with which he trained to be able to offensively step out onto the floor and shoot the ball from the perimeter ... For his size, he’s the best shot blocker in college basketball.”

Now, the Tigers are down to eight available scholarship players. Freshman Chuma Okeme and Horace Spencer are likely to get more minutes inside while 6-3 power forward Desean Murray could see some time at center, too.

The 6-5 Mustapha Heron or 6-6 reserve Malik Dunbar could play some center, too, particularly if the Tigers have foul trouble.

The 6-8 Okeke has been averaging 7.6 points and 5.1 rebounds off the bench but hasn’t started a game.

“I have a very high level of confidence in all the things that we’re going to be asking all the guys to do to make up for Anfernee’s loss,” Pearl said. “I think they’re all positioned to be able to do more. We are going to clearly miss Anfernee but I really do think the other guys are in position and are able to pick up and for us to continue to find a way to win basketball games.”

Auburn has a two-game lead over Tennessee with four regular season games remaining and would win the head-to-head tiebreaker.

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