AUBURN — Turns out, it doesn't matter what number J'Von McCormick has on the back of his jersey.
He proved that Saturday afternoon in No. 11-ranked Auburn's 91-80 win over No. 18 LSU, while wearing his usual No. 5 instead of the No. 55 he pulled on late in Tuesday's win over Arkansas.
With Auburn trailing LSU by eight points with 1:26 remaining in a game that put a piece of first place in the SEC standings up for grabs, the senior took over.
McCormick made 3-pointers on three straight possessions to cut the home team's deficit down to two points. When he missed a fourth with a chance to take the lead, he came up with the steal. Isaac Okoro got the ball ahead to Samir Doughty, who made the game-tying layup to force overtime for the third time in the team's last four games.
LSU took a one-point lead with nine seconds remaining in overtime when Skylar Mays jumped in front of a Doughty pass and got the ball ahead to Emmitt Williams for an emphatic dunk. But, McCormick answered, as he drove into the lane, pulled up between three LSU defenders and hit what proved to be the game-winning floater with just 0.1 seconds remaining.
"I just knew it was in the late seconds. I didn't want anybody else to shoot it, because I was close," McCormick said. "I just got it on the rim."
Freshman wing Devan Cambridge even offered high praise to McCormick, referring to the late Kobe Bryant's nickname: "That's Mamba mentality."
McCormick finished the game with 23 points on 7-for-15 shooting. He also added nine assists (the most since he had 16 against Cal State-Northridge on Nov. 15) and nine rebounds (the most of his Auburn career).
And he did it on a massive stage. Auburn (21-2, 8-2 SEC) entered Saturday's game one game back of LSU (17-6, 8-2) in the SEC standings. Now, they're tied, along with Kentucky (which defeated Tennessee on Saturday). The SEC shares regular-season titles, but in terms of conference tournament seeding, Auburn owns the tiebreaker over both of them.
"It’s one of the better comebacks of my career because of what was at stake and just how much we were down late to such a good team in a championship-type game," Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. "I can’t think of many bigger."
Here are three takeaways:
1. That's why you keep shooting 3-pointers.
Pearl knew that 3-point shot at the top of the key would be available for McCormick late in regulation: "When you play against (LSU coach Will Wade), he’s very unpredictable, which makes him really good. They change defenses. They guard different ways. And the way they guarded J’Von was they were rolling into the ball screen and he was going to be open. And he knocked down, obviously, big shots."
Auburn missed a lot of 3-pointers early. It went into halftime shooting just 5 of 18 from beyond the arc, then missed three of its first four to start the second half. That's not unusual — Pearl's team entered the game ranked 284th nationally hitting just 30.9 percent of its attempts.
But if the defense gives you good looks, you have to take them. Auburn did, hitting 9 of 21 in the second half (including McCormick's three of the final four attempts) and four of five in overtime.
"He stepped up. That's what we expected," Doughty said. "We wanted the ball in his hands. Coach wanted the ball in his hands, and he just delivered."
2. Great offense beats great defense, but not forever.
Nothing that LSU was able to do on the court for most of Saturday's game should have come as much of a surprise. It entered as the most efficient offense in the SEC and sixth-most efficient in the entire country, per KenPom. It ranked second in the league in scoring and first in field goal percentage.
It suffered its first conference loss of the season against previously winless Vanderbilt on Wednesday, but it still scored 90 points in that game.
Auburn led Saturday's game 12-8 with a little less than 12 minutes to play in the first half. LSU, at that point, had made just 2 of 12 shots. But then it started to do what it has been doing all season. The visitors made 11 of 12 shots, including a stretch of 10 straight, during a 24-5 run to take a 15-point lead.
When Auburn went on an 11-0 run to get back within four, LSU made four straight shots to stretch the lead back to double digits going into halftime. The visitors shot 50 percent before the break, including 7 of 15 from beyond the arc.
"That’s a championship-caliber team, a championship-caliber coaching staff, really good players with a lot of character and heart," Pearl said. "You could see by the way they played, the way they came in here on the road and did the things they needed to do to put themselves in position to win."
3. A four-guard lineup got the job done without Danjel Purifoy.
Danjel Purifoy ranks last among the Auburn's starters scoring only 9.6 points a game, but he's the second-leading rebounder at 5.1 a game and a solid defender who plays the fourth-most minutes on the team (28 a game).
So not having him available because of a bout with the flu Saturday hurt Auburn, especially early on.
Anfernee McLemore replaced Purifoy in the starting lineup at power forward, which altered his rotation with Austin Wiley at center. Wiley picked up two fouls in the first nine minutes, which limited him to just eight minutes on the floor before halftime and forced Auburn to play small with Cambridge or Allen Flanigan at power forward.
"I thought about bringing in Jaylin (Williams) or Stretch (Akingbola) when we lost Danjel, but I just felt like I wanted to give Devan and Al and Jamal (Johnson), who had been playing regularly, just more minutes to play," Pearl said.
That four-guard lineup struggled at times on defense. LSU outscored the home team 38-20 in the lane. But, Wiley played 16 minutes in the second half even after picking up his third foul with 18 minutes to play. The senior center had only two points and four rebounds at that point. He finished with a double-double 10 points and 13 rebounds to go along with an emphatic block of Javonte Smart early during the overtime period.