NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
In front of a packed Bridgestone Arena, filled with approximately 90 percent Tennessee orange, it was essentially a home game for the favored Volunteers, not to mention the thousands of UT faithful holding miniature pep rallies up and down Broadway Street.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
But as Auburn exploded for a surreal 17-1 run in the first half, J’Von McCormick and Danjel Purifoy played their best basketball of the season, Chuma Okeke and Austin Wiley played their best basketball of the tournament and Bryce Brown earned top 3-point shooter in SEC Tournament history, it became clear — Bruce Pearl’s underdogs were not going to be denied.
In likely the best game of Bruce Pearl’s tenure — and one of the top performances in Auburn history — the fifth-seeded Tigers crushed 3-seed Tennessee 84-64 on Sunday to win the 2019 SEC Tournament championship, their first since 1985.
With the win, Auburn will raise an SEC title banner for the second straight season after it shared the regular-season crown with Tennessee last season.
"We hope that we'll be able to represent the SEC in the NCAA Tournament as its champion," Pearl said. "... Not sure we deserve as much as we've been blessed."
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After Jared Harper, Auburn’s hero for most of its magical run in the Music City who has been playing at All-American level, was sent to the bench with a pair of fouls in the first two minutes, a fast offensive start for the Tigers seemed unlikely.
Enter junior backup J’Von McCormick. His style as Auburn’s maestro contrasts Harper’s mightily. The offense doesn’t hang out behind the 3-point line as much.
That worked to near-perfection as McCormick sliced and diced the Vols' defense, leading an 17-1 run that put Auburn up 12. In the first half alone, he played 18 minutes, a season-high against D-I opponents.
He also helped forward Danjel Purifoy score a season-high 10 points, his most since the Tigers were knocked out of the 2016-17 SEC Tournament by Missouri.
"It was huge," said guard Bryce Brown of McCormick's play. "... Actually one of his best games he played for us, defensively, offensively. He chipped in there, got some steals, found his teammates on a break."
Auburn shot 5-for-20 in the first half from beyond the arc, continuing its stretch of poor 3-point starts in Nashville.
Then Jared Harper re-entered. The offense didn't drop off from McCormick's direction; it simply changed. Harper set up more around the perimeter as the Tigers started the second period 9-of-15 from deep, including 4-of-6 3-point shooting from Chuma Okeke, who scored his most points in Nashville at 18 with 13 rebounds while matched up with SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams.
"I knew I had to step up. They kept finding me and giving open shots with the drive. I knew I had to come through for my teammates."
Despite Tennessee's best efforts in front of a near-home crowd, namely a stretch of 10-for-11 shooting, Auburn always had an answer. The Tigers hit 10 of their 20 3-point attempts in response to quick Tennessee runs.
Brown was named the tournament's MVP after his 19 points. In the process, he also became the most prolific 3-point shooter in SEC Tournament history with 18 made triples in four games.
"You saw Bryce with his ability to shoot the basketball," Pearl said. He's just such a dangerous player out there on the floor. He has great freedom."
And it was Brown who was the first on the court to celebrate. In the waning seconds, as walk-on Myles Parker and reserve big man Cole Blackstock checked in the game, Pearl was nearly brought to tears by chants of "We love Bruce!", Tennessee fans headed for the exits by the thousands and "It's great to be an Auburn Tiger!" rang through Bridgestone Arena, the party began.
Pearl stuck out his tongue and turned his hat backwards. Wiley hugged the SEC Championship trophy tight, meandering around the floor, saying, "I can't believe this, man. I can't believe this."
Like last season, Brown struggled to cut down the nets. Atop a ladder, scissors in his right hand, he yelled down to his teammates: "Hey, how do I do this, man?" One responds: "You did this last year?"
When Brown got it figured out and hung the net around his neck, he and his teammates paraded into the locker room.
In the bowels of the arena, Malik Dunbar sprinted past reporters waiting to enter the locker room, holding a 2019 SEC Champion sign. Like a little brother being pestered, McCormick rounded the corner next, yelling ahead to Dunbar: "That's my sign, bro! Give it back!"
In the locker room, ice covered the carpet after the celebration. Players tied their pieces of the net around the Velcro of their hats before heading back to their Westin hotel in downtown Nashville to watch Auburn earn its first back-to-back NCAA Tournament berth in 20 years.
"We'll probably wake up in the morning feeling great about it," Pearl said. "Then we'll try to take advantage, if we can, to represent the SEC as its tournament champion in the NCAA Tournament."
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