Tennessee picked up yet another top five win on Saturday evening, knocking off No. 3 Auburn at Thompson-Boling Arena. The win broke a streak of six straight losses for the Volunteers against Bruce Pearl. It also put Tennessee firmly on the three-seed line with just a week left to play in the regular season.
Below is Rick Barnes’ press conference, along with all his quotes.
ON GETTING DOWN 11 POINTS EARLY IN THE SECOND HALF, BEFORE RALLYING TO WIN
“I thought we did get more aggressive defensively. I thought Zakai (Zeigler) coming in, I thought his ball pressure was really a big part of that happening. I did think it took those guys, our guys, a little bit of time to get used to their length out there. When to go and how quickly they were going to have to play to the rim. Rebounding, obviously, the second half … the first half, when we did have a little bit of a lead, we had just two blunders that you can’t have. Turnovers. Throwing it out of bounds. Really it flipped the game a little bit. But the more aggressive we got, I thought the better we became on the offensive end. Santi (Vescovi) had a tough time getting going, but that’s a credit to their defense and what they do. Overall, Auburn is a terrific team and you’re not going to get a lot of easy baskets. You knew that they have a special player, players. When they get to a situation they’re going to try to get the ball in (Jabari Smith’s) hands. He had a terrific game today.”
ON BRANDON HUNTLEY-HATFIELD’S PERFORMANCE IN THE SECOND HALF
“You never know when the light comes on for someone. You hope it can happen like that, but it very seldom does. But Brandon in the last couple weeks has been so locked into our scouting reports. I mean, he came in early on his own, wanting to know exactly what he had to do today. And I think most freshmen coming, in their idea of success is scoring, scoring, scoring. I do think Brandon is starting to find out, one, he’s quicker off the floor than you think. He’s got a really good feel for the game and for the ball. The way he got his hands on basketballs. I thought he was key. I’ll tell you one thing we did find. We found a guy that can inbound the ball for us at the end of the game. He was terrific. He came in there and he saw it. He made the plays, which was really, really key. His demeanor was really good. And he’s worked. It goes back to the old adage. The more you put into it, the more you’re going to get out of it. In his case, it’s been more mental than physically. Where he’s really starting to want to learn the game at a high level.”
ON OUT-REBOUNDING AUBURN 54-31
“We talk about it every game. We’ve got to do that. We’ve got to do it, plain and simple. Sometimes it’s great block outs and things like that. Sometimes it’s a matter of wanting to get the basketball. Tonight we had a lot of guys with that effort, trying to get their hands on it and make things happen. I just hope we can continue to build on it.”
ON ZAKAI ZEIGLER, JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES AND JOHN FULKERSON BEING LIMITED IN PRACTICE THIS WEEK, THEN PLAYING SATURDAY
“First of all, there’s never any doubt they were going to play. Not what you every worry about with our guys. At this time of year, I think a lot of teams are really banged up and guys have played a lot of minutes. But what you’re concerned about is their timing, even though you know they’re going to be competitive, they’re going to be locked in with the scouting report. It’s just the timing. Knowing it. Their bodies have gotten so used to a schedule, to where they know what they’re going to do.
“Like tomorrow will be a day we scrub (the game tape) out. Some guys won’t do very much. Then the next off day will be Wednesday. Their bodies get used to that. Then all at once they’re not doing much for two days, three days in a row. You just worry about their bodies getting out of sync. I know Zakai (Zeigler) came in early today and went through a quicker, hard 20-minute workout, trying to get his timing back. He kind of started like I thought, a little out out of sync. But what he did defensively, I thought it changed a lot of things for our team.”
ON THE HOME-COURT ADVANTAGE CREATED BY THE THOMPSON-BOLING ARENA CROWD
“When I got here, I heard it 10,000 times over, about our (Texas) game when we came in here. Honestly, I get so locked in I’m almost oblivious to it. I really am. So when I start to hear it, I know it’s loud. I do. But when I first got here, I met Kevin Feltner, who is from here in East Tennessee, and he told me, ‘I promise you, you’re going to find out Tennessee has got the best basketball fans in the country.’ He said that to me. And I tell you what, I’ll get a text from him tonight, as I did after every big game, saying I told you so.
“As time has gone on, I’ve told you, my first year here, I’ll never forget. We were playing on New Year’s Eve and Rob Lanier tapped me on my knee and said coach, look at this crowd. Look at this crowd on New Year’s Eve. I think we had 16,000 playing I think it was Tennessee State or Tennessee Tech, one of them. And I do believe we’ve got the best home-court advantage, I do. I think our fans are great. I just told them it’s great to be a Tennessee Volunteer. They made a difference. Our student section has been outstanding. I told our guys, the first time I’ve said it honestly since I’ve been here, I said if you guys will get it going on defense, we’ll get this crowd going in the game. I’ve never alluded to a crowd (during a timeout). I don’t know if I’ve ever done it in my career, to be honest with you. And I don’t know why I did it today. But I did say that during a timeout. I said if you guys will come out here and get it, turn it up on the defensive end, make some things happen, this place will come to life. And it did.”
ON AUBURN RELYING SO MUCH ON JABARI SMITH
“Bruce (Pearl) is a very smart coach. A terrific basketball coach. When you’ve got a guy like that (Jabari Smith) kind of talent, I mean, Kevin Durant played with, a team with six of our top seven were freshmen. He played 36 minutes for a reason, and he averaged 26 points a game. It’s hard not to give him the ball because it’s not like they’re selfish players. You know they’ll make the right read if they get double-teamed, pass the ball.
“But the fact is, we were switching a few times down there, for him. People forget Kennedy Chandler has a 6-7 wingspan. Zakai is going to fight. Santi is going to fight. Even us sometimes, when we feel like we need baskets, it’s based on who we think we can play through. Like at the end, if they were going to play straight up, we were going to probably put Zakai up top with the ball a little bit more. But he went up there, what he did, he tried to dribble through two people. I keep telling he and Kennedy they don’t have to make a play. They have to make the right play. It’s hard, when you’ve got a very, very talented player, to say hey, we’ve got to play through him.”
ON TRUSTING BRANDON-HUNTLEY HATFIELD AS THE INBOUNDER
“I think where has grown. He has come so far in so many different areas. He has been really locked in for the last — I am talking about the scouting report. He is in the huddle talking. He knows what is coming. You can ask him. I can tell you. But he has earned it. It has nothing to do with us. I think you guys know that if you are going to be out there, you are going to have to earn your way out there. We talk about holding that rope. He has done that.
“At times, it has been slippery for him. He has never caved into it. He and Jonas both are helping us at the right time. We need them all. We said that from the beginning. I love his demeanor, but more important is the focus he has has mentally to get ready for the game. He hit a three and had a chance to shoot another one and didn’t. I think that is all maturity. I think he is starting to get a great feel for what we have to do and how we all have to be together as a team. He has got so many great days ahead of him. He is going to continue to keep working and get himself in elite shape. He will become the player that I think everybody knows he can be.”
ON GUARDING WALKER KESSLER
“I don’t know if we limited him. We were trying to play our defensive principles. We had to adjust a little bit on the ball screen at the end of the game. We went more to a drop-catch than having our guards fight over it so we could take away the roll. We didn’t have to tag quite as much on the backside for those skip passes. But again the credit goes to the guys. They have got great respect for what Auburn does and how they play and the year they have had. We know we have to do that every night that we go out.
“They knew it would be hard. I told them before the game, how are we going to be when it is not going our way? We turned it over twice when I think we had a four- or five-point lead and gave them some momentum. Finished out the half okay. When it wasn’t going great, we finally got things turned around more like we are but it was done by—I thought Zakai’s ball pressure was huge. I thought it was really huge. We started making some shots. Making shots is a big part of this game as you all know. We had some early that we could have, should have, maybe. But that is part of the game. When we needed some, we made some shots.”
ON PLAYERS RUNNING INTO THE STANDS TO CELEBRATE
“I don’t (watch). I walk off the court. I get there, the last thing I said to them when I got through was you have to go enjoy this quick and we go to play Georgia on Tuesday night. I think it is their appreciation for our fan base and for our students. They are students. They are college kids. I get it. Winning is so hard. I probably am not one of the best at enjoying winning because my mind quickly gets on to what is next. For them, I want them to enjoy winning because it is hard to come by. When you do win, I don’t want them to do anything stupid. I don’t want them to ever disrespect any opponent. I want them to show humility. I want them to be classy. But I do want them to enjoy it. I don’t want them to ever do something that their moms and dads and family wouldn’t be proud of and obviously our university. It is part of being where we are today. They should enjoy it. They just won a game against an outstanding basketball team.”
ON THE OVERRATED CHANT
“It is a longstanding feeling. I have never understood that. You just had a great, quality win against a team that first of all is not (overrated). Your fans are acting like you beat nobody. Well, we did. We just beat a top-5 team. One, they are not overrated. Two, to me, it diminishes that you just won a great game against an outstanding basketball team. I have never understood it. I never have. Wherever I have been, when fans start doing that, I am like stop. Give us credit. Don’t demean what we just did. We just beat an outstanding basketball team. I have thought that my entire career. I have never enjoyed it when fans do that. Our guys work too hard and won a game against an outstanding team today.”
ON WHAT HE THINKS WHEN KENNEDY CHANDLER’S FINAL SHOT WENT IN
“I knew we were going to have to score again. I knew that. I did. I knew we were going to have to do that. I would have felt a lot better if we make our free throws and get the ball inbounds. He can run the baseline. We keep telling him that. He made that tough pass to Santi, but he could have ran it over there. Believe it or not, we spent a lot of time this week and we have the last two weeks, working on special situations. We have to do a better job. Certainly, they are athletic and big and can put a quick trap on you. We are going to have to continue to get better in that area.”