It was a tale of two halves for the No. 5 Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday as they missed a chance of winning the SEC Regular Season Title outright.
The Vols rolled into Auburn Arena to face a hungry Tigers squad trying to solidify reservations for the NCAA Tournament. Auburn (22-9, 10-8 SEC), who went 5-6 during an 11-game stretch in conference play and threatened their postseason status, has now won four straight to end the regular season.
The Vols (27-4, 15-3), on the other hand, were trying to punctuate a record-setting season and claim at least a share of the SEC Regular Season for the second year in-a-row. However, the team they shared the banner with last season took destiny out of their hands.
The Tigers, as expected, pushed tempo and shot from distance to open the game. The Vols properly responded by controlling the pace and hitting bold shots of their own.
The Vols were led by sixth-man Jordan Bowden in the opening half. The junior scored 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, including two 3-point makes. Tennessee attempted 14 3-pointers in the first half, well above pace for its season average of 19 per game. But, it worked. The Vols connected on five of those attempts while shooting a combined 55 percent from the field. The result was a 41-35 halftime lead.
It was a pace Tennessee doesn’t prefer, but is capable of surviving, as the first twenty minutes showed. Everyone chipped in for the Vols. Grant Williams had 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting. Point guard Jordan Bone was feasting to the tune of nine points and five assists.
Then, the team vying for back-to-back SEC titles flunked the last segment of their midterm.
Auburn didn’t do anything different. Bruce Pearl had his guys as loose as ever. The green light was on for anyone who touched the basketball in a Tigers uniform.
Auburn went 13-of-34 from deep. Its 38.2 percent rate was just a shade above its season average (37.5). Same goes for the makes. Shooting 34 attempts from distance may be abnormal for most teams, but not for Pearl’s crew that is first in the SEC in every basic 3-point shooting metric. The Tigers hoisted 41 such attempts in a win against Missouri in January.
The 28 tries from the Vols is concerning. It was their most 3-point attempts in a conference game this season. They made 12. A mark of 32 percent is something head coach Rick Barnes will take. It is only three percentage points off their average. The volume of attempts is what hurt the Vols, but it’s still not what killed them on the Plains.
What got the best of Tennessee is two-fold. It is both qualitative and quantifiable.
It starts with tenacious poise. Auburn came out swinging and didn’t let up, even against the No. 5 team in the nation, an opponent who just held Kentucky and Mississippi State to 52 and 54 points, respectively. This was a Volunteer team that was playing with a robust fervor, poised to make a historic run in March. Yet, Pearl was as festive as ever and his players matched him with swagger. The result was Auburn’s first win over a top-5 team since 1995.
The Tigers didn’t let up after halftime. They stuck to their plan and, eventually, the Vols looked rattled. Apply the terminology you want: energy, poise, momentum, karma, voo-doo. Whatever your preference, it ran out for the Vols in the second half.
The confident shooting by Auburn was a product of good ball-movement. Taking care of the ball was key to the Tigers’ success. They finished the game with 16 assists and only five turnovers.
Pearl and company parlayed this cohesion into fierce defensive play. Tennessee committed 13 turnovers. The Tigers forced the Vols into two shot-clock violations, one in each half. Getting just one a game against the most efficient offense in the SEC is commendable. Auburn did it twice.
The Vols were left flat-footed too many times in transition. Auburn routinely had open attempts. Kyle Alexander couldn’t handle the perimeter-oriented offense, proving costly at times in half-court sets.
As the second half ticked away, two of Tennessee’s leaders found themselves in foul trouble. Williams was able to control his defense and finished the game with three fouls. Admiral Schofield fouled out with 30 seconds left in the game.
Tennessee didn’t produce any numbers that were alarming, aside from out-rebounding Auburn by 12. That disparity is due to the Tigers’ volume of three-pointers. The Vols shot a shade lower than average. They turned the ball over three more units than average, in tune with four assists less than average.
Those margins don’t sound like much, but they could mean everything in March. On Saturday, those small numbers were the difference.
Tennessee shouldn’t have to shoot 50 percent to win. Adjusting to adverse situations is what advances teams in March. Against Auburn, the Vols couldn’t respond when the Tigers made their run.
The good news for Barnes, is that his team has time to prepare, heal and learn for almost a week before partaking in the SEC Tournament in Nashville. The Vols have the weapons that you need in March. They have a Player of the Year candidate in Williams, who went for 25 points and nine rebounds against Auburn, along with a bevy of other dangerous options.
For a while, it looked like Bowden could be the counter-punch, but he went 1-of-3 in the second half. Schofield simply didn’t get enough looks, either. For a player of his magnitude that is shooting 3’s at the rate of 3-of-4 against the Tigers, he was severely short-changed in the gameplan by getting just nine field goal attempts in the game.
Reigning Sixth-Man of the Year Lamonte Turner had a woeful day, effectively his worst performance since coming off of injury at the beginning of January. The junior went 1-of-9. Eight of those attempts were from distance. He only connected on one. He also had a key futile foul in closing seconds of the shot clock that resulted in two points for Auburn.
Despite all the negatives, Tennessee’s talent kept them in the game. It is fair to say that Saturday’s game was Auburn’s best, just like it was far from Tennessee’s worst. As if CBS’ Jon Rothstein hasn’t said it enough, it is now March. It takes relentless effort and poise to win from here on out. The best players rise to the occasion. Unsung heroes become household names. Defenses are faced with offensive explosions. How teams respond to those forces is what hangs banners.
Tennessee’s path for the past two years has led it to a trail of success. This season, the Vols proved they have arrived at the biggest stage in college basketball. They have an early season win against No.1 Gonzaga. They dismantled Kentucky in Knoxville just a week ago. In between, they displayed a school record 19-game winning streak and a No. 1 ranking that lasted four weeks.
As Saturday showed, they are vulnerable. But that doesn’t mean they can’t bounce back. This Vols team has done so all year. The only difference being, there is only one more mulligan.
It is now time for Tennessee to pass their final exam, just like they’ve passed every other test this season. They are certainly capable of doing so.