Hats off to Auburn. Hats off to its student section, that showed up and made things rowdy despite cheering for a team that came in 3-13 in league play. Hats off to Frankie Sullivan on senior day, who dropped 24 points before fouling out late. Hats off to the entire team, who made this thing a real fight for about 32 minutes.
But hats off to Tennessee, for finishing what it started.
The Vols built an early seven point lead and it looked like this thing would be the blowout many of us expected against a team riding a seven game losing streak. But the Tigers rallied as the Vol defense faltered; Auburn actually finished the game shooting 50.9% from the floor. They led at halftime and then built a lead of as many as six early in the second half. Tennessee didn't let them get away, but this thing was excruciatingly back and forth until the eight minute mark. And then, the Vols stepped on the gas for good.
When Auburn flat-lined for a few minutes, it was enough. The Vols were sparked by Trae Golden and Jordan McRae, who did it with both passing and scoring. Golden was the best player on the floor in the second half, finishing with 21 points, 6 assists, and just one turnover. It was a huge bounce-back effort from our point guard after a rough afternoon in Athens, and his ability to lead this team and get others involved was crucial as the Vols took control. This wasn't Jordan McRae's best game, but I mean, how long could we expect him to keep scoring 25+? Jordan finished with 21 on just 5 of 16 from the floor, but he hit 9 of 11 at the line and added 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and a pair of blocked shots.
This game could've been over sooner if Jarnell Stokes - who still finished with a double-double at 11-12 - could make more than a tenth of his free throws. Get that kid to the gym, then get him on the line and get them in early against Missouri: we need Jarnell to be there for our best basketball to manifest itself. He doesn't have to be a great free throw shooter, he just needs to be better than 1 for 10.
Still, the Vols got double figures from their three best players and got a balanced effort from other contributors: 9 from Josh Richardson, 7 from Armani Moore, 8 big points from Kenny Hall and a big three and a big steal from Skylar McBee. And while the Vols did allow Auburn to shoot the lights out, Tennessee also forced 16 turnovers while only giving it away eight times.
It all adds up to a hard fought seven point win. Nevermind their record: there is no such thing as a bad win in college basketball, and this win, warts and all, keeps Tennessee very much at the center of the bubble conversation. The Vols go to 18-11 (10-7) and recover the momentum that's now given them seven wins in eight games, four of them on the road. UT's RPI didn't move, still at 56 after the road win, which is exactly why we couldn't afford to lose it.
So now we go to our own senior day and a showdown with Missouri on Saturday afternoon. Sometimes the bubble is about just staying afloat, and the Vols have done that despite their loss at Georgia. The win tonight keeps Tennessee right there. But now, the final opportunity of the regular season is our last and now most important chance to do the thing we've been about all year:
Make a statement.