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Tennessee fights back from a double-digit, second-half deficit to beat No. 3 Auburn, 67-62

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UT’s second-half defense made life impossible for the Tigers

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

With 15 minutes left in the game, Tennessee found itself down 11 points.

By the four-minute mark, the Vols were up by 11 points and held on to win 67-62.

The final 120 seconds of the game was just absolute chaos — the Vols were up 10 after two Zakai Zeigler free throws. Kennedy Chandler then turned the ball over twice in seven seconds, which led to an Auburn layup and a Jabari Smith and-1 3-pointer as Josiah-Jordan James fouled Smith as he rose up for his shot.

All in all, it was a 7-0 run for Auburn in 17 seconds of game time. But Kennedy Chandler got a runner to drop on Tennessee’s next possession that stretched the Vols’ lead back out to five points. I don’t know about you, but for me, it felt like that ball hit every inch of the rim before it finally dropped.

With 22 seconds left, Wendell Green, Auburn’s second-leading scorer, missed a 3 on the other end that effectively extinguished the Tigers’ chance to complete the come back.

In the first half, Tennessee was plagued by familiar issues — it didn’t shoot the ball well and turned it over too frequently. The Vols shot just 28 percent and had nine turnovers in the game’s first 20 minutes. Uros Plavsic was HUGE for the Vols early, both literally and figuratively. He was integral for UT on the boards, which kept the offense afloat despite the poor shooting.

Tennessee snagged 28 (!!!) rebounds in the first half, 12 of which were on the offensive glass. That effort led to 10 second-chance points that proved big in keeping the game close, as Auburn committed just three turnovers that limited the Vols’ ability to turn defense into easy offense.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, that trend didn’t continue. The Tennessee defense, particularly the guards, throttled Auburns backcourt into some big turnovers that caused the game to sway in UT’s favor. James, Chandler and Zeigler all caused some havoc at one point or another, and Auburn’s deliberate and precise offense had turned hurried and messy. The Tigers turned it over nine times in the second half, which turned into 12 Volunteer points.

After a quiet first half, Zeigler scored 11 points after the break and hit 6-7 from the FT line, including five-straight makes inside the game’s final five minutes.

Chandler’s late bucket was huge — it basically sealed the deal — but he was a liability at the free-throw line late. He went 1-4 in a 20-ish-second span starting at the 2:48 mark. He’s struggled there this season, he was shooting just 64 percent coming into the game and finished the game just 3-6.

I probably can’t say enough good things about Tennessee’s defense. I don’t have the exact figures, but I know for sure it forced Auburn into two scoring droughts that lasted at least five minutes.

Jabari Smith looked very much like an eventual No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. He’s got a beautiful shot from deep — even though he finished the game just 3-9 — and looks to have really nice touch around the hoop. He’s definitely a face-up power forward at this point, but his combination of size, athleticism and shooting touch are rare.

Tennessee remains undefeated at home this season and pushed its record to 21-7 for the season. The Vols are now in a three-way tie with Kentucky, Arkansas for second place in the SEC and play at Georgia Tuesday, March 1.