J'Von McCormick

Auburn University Men's Basketball takes on the Saint Louis University Billikens at the 2019 Mike Slive Invitational in Birmingham, Alabama's Legacy Arena at the BJCC on Saturday, December 14, 2019. (Kamp Fender for Auburn Athletics)

BIRMINGHAM — J’Von McCormick scored 20 points in a breakout performance, the Tigers survived tough stretches in a back-and-forth game, and the Auburn men’s basketball team beat Saint Louis 67-61 on Saturday in the Mike Slive Invitational.

McCormick hit the last shot of the first half to give Auburn a seven-point lead at the break, then hit back-to-back key shots early in the second half to put Auburn up 10, before Auburn survived the Saint Louis charge late in the game to get to 9-0 on the season.

Saint Louis cut the Auburn lead down to four points at 47-43 with less than 10 minutes left, but Auburn pulled away from there, with Devan Cambridge’s rim-rocking put-back dunk and Anfernee McLemore’s back-to-back 3-pointers highlighting a 15-5 run, all in front of a roaring Birmingham crowd, that put Auburn up 62-48 with less than five minutes left.

McCormick hit a free throw in the final 30 seconds to help ice it. He led all scorers.

“J’Von McCormick was the best player on the floor,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said after the win.

Auburn freshman Isaac Okoro scored another 12.

The game was played in Legacy Arena as part of the Mike Slive Invitational, and Pearl touted the event’s mission to raise awareness for the call on men to get screened for prostate cancer.

Auburn entered the game saying Saint Louis was probably the best team it’s played so far this season. The Billikens fell to 8-2 with the loss.

Auburn fans took over the arena in the BJCC to give orange and blue a major home-court advantage.

“We knew coming into the game I would need to be more aggressive offensively and defensively,” McCormick said. “So, first possession, I just tried to be more aggressive.”

He did so scoring a career-high a year after former Auburn point guard Jared Harper scored a career-high 31 points in the same event against UAB.

That play on defense proved pivotal, as Auburn held Saint Louis to making just 37.9 percent of its shots from the field, and only three of 18 3-point attempts. Auburn on its end only hit 35.5 percent of its shots in what Pearl called an “ugly” game.

McCormick shined, though, and Pearl wasn’t the only one to notice.

“Give him credit,” Saint Louis head coach Travis Ford said. “I told him after the game that he was the difference in the game, plain and simple, by a wide margin.”

Isaac Okoro was Auburn’s only other scorer to hit double figures, adding 12 points.

Auburn trailed 9-0 in the opening moments before charging back with nine unanswered of its own to tie it 9-9. In much the same way, after Auburn led 28-21 at the half, Saint Louis opened the second half on an 8-3 run to make it 31-29, before Auburn punched back with a 6-0 run to make it 37-29.

Moments later McCormick hit back-to-back shots to make it 41-31 with 13:17 left.

McCormick scored 12 of his points in the first half. That includes the pull-up 2-pointer with 18 seconds left in the first half, which gave the game its halftime score. On the other end, Pearl raised his arms calling on noise for the home-state crowd as the Tigers made their last defensive stop at the buzzer to go into the locker room with that seven-point lead.

Auburn saw some fortunate bounces roll shots in, like a deep 3-pointer from McCormick earlier in the half that rattled off the iron then backboard then in as the shot-clock buzzer sounded. Saint Louis, meanwhile, missed all seven of its 3-pointers in the first half, seeing some open shots fall wide.

But Auburn took advantage of any good fortune by bringing the skill to match it, and ultimately pulled away from the challenge.

“Defense was a big part of what won the game today,” Okoro said. “We started off pretty sluggish in the first half so we went into halftime just talking about playing aggressive on defense and that’s what we did.”

Auburn returns home to play NC State on Dec. 19 in Auburn Arena.

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