Seconds before Auburn sophomore forward Anfernee McLemore horrifically hit the South Carolina hardwood, the fans donning garnet and black were as rambunctious as they come.
Their Gamecocks, losers of six-straight at the time, were leading the No. 10 Auburn Tigers by 22 with just over a minute to play in the opening half.
Carolina guard Wesley Myers attacked the lane with a floater, triggering McLemore to leap for the rebound. Gruesomely, the 6-foot-7-inch, conference leader in shot blocks tripped on his teammate Desean Murray, terrifyingly dislocating McLemore’s ankle.
In that moment, you could hear a pin drop in Colonial Life Arena.
Murray, who was pleading with the official for an offensive foul under the hoop, didn’t even notice the injury next to him for a few seconds. Gamecocks and Tigers quickly turned their heads away – some even had to run. The Auburn bench immediately huddled together, consoling one another.
Bruce Pearl hurried to McLemore’s side, grabbing his hand and urging him to look his coach in the eyes.
“I just got to go out there and hold his hand,” Pearl said after the loss. “I got to try and calm him down. I got to go there and have him not sit up and look at it. You got a potential for a shock there. I wanted him to see my face.”
As McLemore was being carted out of the arena, South Carolina head coach Frank Martin rushed over to offer his own encouragement.
@akmclemore Anfernee just want u to know that I’m still thinking of u. I’ve said plenty of s 4 u. Keep your faith God has your back— Frank Martin (@FrankMartin_SC) February 18, 2018
Despite the first half filled with porous defense, lackluster shot selection and McLemore’s demoralizing exit, the Tigers didn’t quit. At one point in the second half, Auburn cut it down to a 5-point South Carolina lead.
The then-tenth-ranked Tigers couldn’t hold on however, suffering only their fourth loss of the season with as many games remaining.
Less than 48 hours later, Pearl was able to evaluate McLemore’s surgery, which was originally expected to hold the Warwick, Georgia product out four to six months. The surgery was performed on McLemore’s ankle and fractured tibia, as well as the torn ligaments suffered.
"The surgery went extremely well," Pearl said Monday morning on the SEC coaches teleconference. "Prior to the surgery the doctors were talking about four to six months (until McLemore returns), and after the surgery we're talking about four months. It went that well."
Pearl now must search his remaining big men for McLemore’s replacement in the starting lineup. Junior Horace Spencer and freshman Chuma Okeke are the likely candidates, and Pearl said Monday that he will allow Spencer to decide which spot in the rotation he is more comfortable with.
Spencer was forced to step up in McLemore’s absence in the second half, turning in six points and four rebounds in the final 20 minutes to lead Auburn’s comeback bid.
Spencer said that his play, as well as hsis team’s, was fueled by the thought of his teammate.
“I just saw my little brother go down and I had to pick it up because I don’t want him to see that we just gave up after he got hurt,” Spencer said. “I think we responded perfectly. Me, personally, I responded great. I feel like me getting that spark, even though I didn’t close the game the way I wanted to, it showed my team that we're still in the game and we still can come back. We should’ve come back and won.”
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One of the few upperclassmen on the roster, Spencer was tasked with lifting the team up after such a dispiriting incident as McLemore’s injury.
“It was sad in the moment,” Spencer said. “A couple of guys broke out in tears, me being one of them, but I feel like me being a leader of the team, I had to show the guys what we had to do in the second half. We had to come back with a fire and a spark and we had to pick it up for Anfernee.”
Spencer worked to ensure that the young players, especially those who would fill the void left by McLemore, like Okeke, didn’t hang their heads.
“Chuma picked himself up,” Spencer said. “I didn’t tell Chuma anything after that happened because I was taking it hard myself, and to see how Chuma reacted after the fact, Chuma had a great second half, so I know he was mentally ready to play.”
Auburn will try to push out distractions this Wednesday against Alabama, one of only three SEC squads to record a win against the Tigers this season. In January’s victory, the Crimson Tide inflicted most of their damage from the perimeter, opting to stay away from the McLemore-guarded paint.
Spencer or Okeke will have to maintain that same defensive prowess for Auburn to avoid a season sweep against its bitter rival.
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One of the primary reasons for Auburn’s success this season has been consistency in the rotations, as Pearl has seemingly found his perfect nine-deep rotation. Now there’s only eight.
Whichever rotation Pearl decides, Spencer echoed that the name and number coinciding with the staring center position is of little significance to a Tiger team playing in honor of their teammate.
“Honestly, it really doesn’t matter who starts, who doesn’t start,” Spencer said. “I really don't care about starting or not, I just want to win against Alabama and the next four games.”