Here's the perfect example of what Tennessee should do to bad teams all year. Nothing personal toward Auburn, who falls to 12-9 (2-5) and continues to bring up the rear for the SEC in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. But consider that the Vols shot just 34.5%, turned it over 16 times, and went just 4 for 20 from the arc. Cameron Tatum went 0 for 9. Trae Golden was 2 for 9.
And yet, the Vols win by fifteen. The entire second half was played with the Vols in front between nine and twenty points. It is a wonderful thing to know that your team is going to play excellent defense every single night, and this one was no different: Auburn shot 30.4%. The particular flavor tonight was, no surprise, dominated by the Vol post players: Auburn missed 39 shots and got just five offensive rebounds. And this was the most impressive shot blocking performance I've seen from a Tennessee team in a long, long time: the unofficial count is ten, and we'll try to update it when we see something official. There were two separate possessions where the Vols blocked consecutive shots. Jarnell Stokes affects the game in a lot of ways, but he gives Tennessee an immovable presence in the paint that can and does change shots.
Speaking of, Stokes had 11 points, 6 rebounds, 4 steals, 2 blocks, and 2 assists. But the game ball goes to his partner in crime: Jeronne Maymon played his best game since Maui, 15 points on just 5 of 8 shooting, 19 rebounds, a pair of assists and a blocked shot. Consider that four Vols took more shots than Maymon. This is why we don't win by more. But we'll learn.
The other pleasant surprise came at the free throw line, where the Vols went 25 times and made 20. Trae Golden was good today even on another bad shooting night, because he went 8 of 8 at the stripe. Even when he's not scoring, Golden's penetration makes a big difference for this team. Jordan McRae also found success getting to the rim, finishing with 11 points and 6 rebounds off the bench. Skylar McBee joins them in double figures with a pair of threes, 4-4 at the line, and a shocking deuce off the dribble.
Tennessee is so good defensively that they can simply lean on bad teams until they fall over. Leads are safer because we play consistent defense, and even poor shooting and too many turnovers can't erase them. Against good teams, the sort of defense we saw tonight may keep us in the game, but the Vols still have to be more careful with the ball, still need to make more threes, and/or even better, need to get Maymon and Stokes more shots. Those two combined for seventeen attempts tonight - I wouldn't mind seeing that numer in the twenties every night.
Still, this was a good win, a comfortable evening that I'm sure feels good for a team so accustomed to playing close games. The Vols go to 10-11 (2-4), and will end this ridiculous month in Rupp Arena Tuesday night. The defense will be there again. If we keep growing on the other end, we're going to be a very good basketball team one day. Whether that day is Tuesday or not, tonight we celebrate this much needed, well deserved win over Auburn.