Knoxville- It had all the makings of a heavyweight fight between two teams looking to gain respect on the court. Coming into this massive matchup in the SEC, we wondered could Tennessee hold up in the paint against Auburn, could they actually do enough down low to win. The Vols did that and more, defeating the Tigers 67-62, in front of more than 21,000 people.
Tennessee is now 15-0 at home this season and snapped a six-game losing streak to the Tigers.
The Vols started giving Auburn problems in the paint almost immediately, with Brandon Huntley-Hatfield making life difficult for Walker Kessler on the boards. The shooting would come, but the Vols led 12-11 at the 12-minute break, thanks to them out-rebounding Auburn 13-3. We haven’t seen a basketball team give Auburn this many problems on the boards for most of the season, we would probably have to go back to the Kentucky game. Tennessee looked like a team that wasn’t going to be outhustled around the rim, which they proved time and time again.
But we all knew this Auburn team was going to bring different offensive looks at the Vols, which they proved during the 13-2 run in the first half. If it weren’t for Josiah-Jordan James finishing a dunk before the half ended, the Tigers would’ve taken all the momentum into the half, but they led 31-25 at the break. Auburn had 10 points off 9 Tennessee turnovers, giving them the advantage, even though the Vols were handling the boards.
Jabari Smith led the Tigers with 11 points in the first half, while Josiah-Jordan James had 7 for the Vols. If it weren’t for a few bad shots from Tennessee down the stretch, this game could’ve gone the other way at halftime, but there was a long way to go.
Tennessee had nine turnovers in the first half and committed four more in the first four minutes of the second half, giving the Tigers enough room to make it an 11 point lead. But the Vols were about to make Auburn work harder than the had all day on the offensive side. It was almost like a light switch was flipped after Brandon Huntley-Hatfield drained a three-point shot from the corner, sending the capacity crowd into a frenzy. This is what started the trend towards a Tennessee victory.
“You never know when the light comes on for someone. You hope it can happen like that and it very seldom does. Brandon in the last couple of weeks has been so locked into our scouting reports. He came in early on his own and continued to know exactly what he had to do today,” Rick Barnes said about Hatfield.
In a game where Auburn came in with an advantage in size, especially in the paint, the Vols didn’t let that detour them from going right at Kessler and Smith. The Tennessee point-guard trio of Chandler, Vescovi and Zeigler combined for 40 points tonight, causing the Tigers multiple problems towards the basket. If it weren’t for Huntley-Hatfield coming up big with 8 rebounds on the night, who knows how this game plays out down the stretch. But it wasn’t just the rebounding, it was the way the Vols were playing defense, holding the Tigers to 35% from the field and 21% from behind the perimeter.
Rick Barnes noticed his team take it up a notch defensively, creating pressure and causing Auburn to turn the ball over in the second half.
“I thought we got more aggressive defensively. I thought Zakai (Zeigler) coming in and his ball pressure was a big part of that happening. I do think it took our guys a little bit of time to get used to their length out there, when to go and how quickly they are about to play to the rim. We had three turnovers and they ended up with 15. In the first half when we did have a little bit of a lead and we had two blunders that you can’t have, turnovers and going out of bounds. It really flipped the game a little bit. The more aggressive we got defensively, the better we became on the offensive end.
“Overall, Auburn is a terrific team and you aren’t going to get a lot of easy baskets,” Barnes added. “You know that they have a special player that when they get into a situation, they are going to try to get the ball in his hands and he had a terrific game today.”
As the Tigers took an eleven point lead in the second half, the Vols starting chipping away at that leads by getting to the basket. This isn’t easily done against this Auburn team, but when you hold a team down defensively, along with holding Auburn to 1-14 during a stretch in the second half, this is what happens. The Vols held Wendell Green Jr. to 2-15 from the field, while Walker Kessler only took four shots in the second half.
Tennessee just took over after Josiah-Jordan James knocked down a three coming out of the under eight break, which was followed up by another from Vescovi. This was the point in the game where Tennessee took over and took advantage, going a stretch where they had 21 offensive rebounds, compared to 11 from the Tigers.
The Vols trailed by eleven at one point and then fought back to take an eleven point lead late in the second half. Thanks to Santiago Vescovi and Kennedy Chandler finishing this game off at the free throw line, the Vols escaped a last second spurt from the Tigers. Rick Barnes was very complimentary of the crowd tonight, who definitely played a part in the win tonight.
“I get so locked in that I get almost oblivious to it. And then so when I did hear it, I knew it was loud. I do believe that we have the best home-court advantage… Our student section has been outstanding.”
It was Santiago Vescovi putting on a cowboy hat, John Fulkerson leading the band and the players heading into the student section, but these Tennessee players earned the right to celebrate with the raucous crowd.
Tonight proved that Tennessee can play with anyone in the country, though they’ve already proved that numerous times this season. This was a statement game for Rick Barnes and his squad, not that they needed one, but they had a chance to prove to the country that this team can still cause problems in the paint. To me, that’s the biggest takeaway from tonight, the fact the Vols punk’d Auburn on the boards.
Now, the Tigers will be just fine, but the Vols have put it all together at the best time, with 2 regular season games remaining in the SEC. A crowd that nearly stood the entire game while their Vols went on a terrorizing run to take the lead, will go home happy. Now, the Vols move to 15-0 at home this season, doing it in dramatic fashion.
Auburn might’ve had the best player on the court tonight in Jabari Smith, but Tennessee had the best overall team, if for just one night.
Heads up everyone, Tennessee is feeling good about themselves at the right time.