Clutch three-point shooting from the Tigers and defensive lapses from the Vols culminated in a disappointing loss that kept the Vols from back-to-back SEC regular season titles for the first time in program history.
Despite the disappointing finish, it still doesn’t take away from a stellar regular season that saw the Vols set new records and hold the top spot in the country for a month.
The game got off to the expected start for both teams, as Grant Williams made the first bucket for the Vols, but Auburn answered right back with a three pointer to make it a 3-2 lead.
Tennessee continued to run their brand of offense while Auburn continued to take threes and the process eventually led to a 14-8 Volunteer lead with a little over 15:00 to go in the first half.
The Vols were 5 of 7 from the floor, while Auburn was 3 of 8 at this point.
But poor decisions - namely consecutive three point attempts that shouldn’t have been taken - allowed Auburn back in the game and a three-pointer from Bryce Brown tied the game up at 14. Fortunately, Admiral Schofield immediately responded with a jumper to put the Vols back in the lead, 16-14, with 13:13 remaining.
The Tigers had attempted eight three-pointers within the first seven minutes of the game. They’d yet to establish an inside presence, so it was clear they were going to live and die at the arc this game. This was evidenced even more to the tune of 11 three-point attempts in 16 total shots at one point in the first half.
The Vols ran into a bit of trouble early on as Schofield hit the bench after getting called for his second foul of the game. Tennessee was up 23-16, but how would they fare without their senior leader?
It’s pretty easy to see that they did just fine without him. They were able to build a 35-24 lead off of 5 of 9 shooting - including 2 of 3 from three - and an 8-0 run before a turnover that led to a Chuma Okeke slam ended the run.
Good spacing, aggressive defense, and good shot selection had the Vols rolling with just a tad under 4:00 left in the first half.
A 7-2 run from the Tigers cut the Vols’ lead to 37-31, but Tennessee was able to maintain the six-point lead into halftime, 41-35.
Tennessee shot 55 percent in the first half, compared to 41 percent for the Tigers. As expected, Auburn shot a ton of three-pointers - 18 on 32 total shots to be exact - but the Vols also had 14 long distance attempts on 31 total shots.
The Vols outrebounded the Tigers 20-12 and outscored them 14-10 in the paint. If there was one area to improve for Tennessee, it’d be to limit the turnovers and stop the lapses in defense. Overall, the defense had played well, but there were a few lapses that were very concerning.
Auburn’s defense decided to show up early on in the second half, but the Vols’ defense didn’t show up at all.
The Tigers went on a 7-0 run in the first two minutes of play to regain the lead, 42-41. It was the first time they led since leading 3-2 after their first shot of the game.
But two free throws from Williams and an offensive charge on the Tigers allowed Bowden to sink his third trey of the game from the corner and the Vols were back up, 46-42 with 15:46 to play.
Tennessee was able to stretch the lead to 50-43, but Okeke drilled a three then picked Schofield’s pocket en route to five straight points to cut the Vols’ lead to 50-48.
A bad foul on Lamonte Turner later on gave Auburn the opportunity to tie the game, but Brown could only hit 2 of his 3 free throws. The Vols led 56-55, but the lead soon evaporated after a Williams foul allowed enter here to put the Tigers in the lead, 57-56.
But Jordan Bone immediately responded with a drive to the basket and converted the and-1 opportunity to put the Vols back up, 59-57.
Auburn then pounced on the Vols thanks to Okeke. he scored four of the team’s six points as the went on a 6-0 run to take a 63-59 lead with 8:30 left in the game. The Vols hadn’t made a shot in almost 2:30 until a three from Bone ended the drought and brought the team within two points of the Tigers’ lead, 64-62.
Another Brown three pushed Auburn’s lead to 69-64 with 6:20 left and things began to look pretty dire for the Vols, but Williams came through with a bucket of his own. He was also fouled, but couldn’t convert the three point play. The Vols trailed, 69-66 with 5:30 left to play.
Williams was able to make another shot thanks to his signature spin move and was fouled again in the process. This time, he converted the three point play and tied the game up at 69 (nice).
But consecutive three-pointers from Harper put the Tigers right back in the lead, 75-69 with about 2:45 to go.
Tennessee would have to find a way to get stops on defense if they were going to win this game.
Bowden finally came through and picked Okeke’s pocket as the Tigers led 75-72, but Schofield took an ill-advised three and couldn’t tie the game.
All but the final nail was put in Tennessee’s coffin as Harper’s shot was blocked by Williams, just to have Doughty drain a three off the block to put Auburn up 78-72 with under a minute to play.
Schofield tried to come up with a crucial charge, but was called for a block on Harper as he drove to the bucket with a tick over thirty seconds left. Auburn led 78-74, so two made free throws would all but seal the deal for the Tigers.
Sure enough, he nailed both and Auburn led 80-74 with very little time to play.
The game looked to be over, but a hook-and-hold call on Anfernee McLemore gave the Vols life with :23 seconds left in the game. Williams hit both of his free throws and made an ensuing layup to cut the lead to 80-78 with :20 seconds left.
Schofield committed the obligatory foul to keep the game going, but it came at a cost as it was fifth foul. Harper hit both free throws and Auburn was back up by four points with :20 to go.
But a sloppy offensive possession led to a Volunteer turnover and the last bit of Rick Barnes’ squad’s hopes were dashed as the Tigers would go on to win, 82-78.
Tennessee can still take home a share of the SEC title, but they’ll need a victory from winless-in-the-SEC Vanderbilt against LSU tonight to do so.
The Vols will now await their fate as they will hold the number two seed in the SEC Tournament. That game will be played on Friday, March 15th. Tip-off has yet to be determined.