A year ago, Tennessee had the luxury of clinching its share of the SEC Regular Season Championship at home. It would not be granted that privilege this time around.
Unfortunately for them, both the venue and the result changed.
Despite 25 points and nine rebounds from Grant Williams, and 17 points and seven assists from Jordan Bone, the Vols were unable to overcome Auburn’s second half barrage, falling on the road, 84-80.
Chuma Okeke led the Tigers, who have now beat Tennessee in the regular season for the second straight year, with 22 points and five rebounds. The loss also puts UT’s chances to claim a second consecutive conference title on hold as they’ll need Vanderbilt to overcome LSU to claim a share.
Despite holding an 11-point lead in the first half, the Vols were unable to fend off a strong second half push from the Tigers on Senior Day, something their head coach wasn’t very pleased with.
“Turnovers obviously hurt but you’ve got to give them credit for that,” Rick Barnes said. “The fact is, we didn’t guard the ball on the perimeter well enough whether it was on the perimeter or inside.”
Coming out of the gates red-hot, it seemed like Tennessee had the opposing crowd well at hand as they claimed a double digit lead early.
Shooting 55 percent from the field during the opening 20 minutes, the Vols were matching every run the Tigers threw at them while holding them to just 33 percent shooting from long range. Taking a 6-point lead into the intermission, Tennessee appeared to have all of the momentum as they continued to silence a raucous Auburn crowd.
That didn’t last long and UT’s play in the second half was a big reason why.
Forcing the Vols into seven turnovers over the course of the final period, the Tigers recorded 13 points off turnovers during that span as they sprinted out of the locker room with a 7-0 run.
It was from that point going forward that Tennessee lost all of its self-discipline and their star forward highlighted that following the game.
“It was just a lack of discipline, we’ve emphasized that we can’t turn the ball over against this team,” Williams said. “They feed off turnovers and they scored almost every time we turned the ball over.”
One of the more controlled teams in college basketball, the Vols looked anything but that as Auburn continued to control the tempo and pace. The Tigers finished with 16 fast break points and averaged just 17 seconds per possession.
While Tennessee finished the first half with nine assists on 17 made shots, they recorded just five assists and 12 made field goals in the second.
Nationally-ranked in the top five in that category for a majority of the season, the Vols were certainly out of their element as they attempted to hold off Auburn’s surge.
“We should have moved the ball better and it gets down to being tough enough to keep grinding it,” Barnes said. “But Auburn is a good basketball team and this league is terrific.”
With Admiral Schofield in late foul trouble, the reigning SEC Player of the Year took it upon himself to try and will Tennessee to another improbable victory away from home.
The only difference is this time, the drive was there but the execution wasn’t.
As the Vols prepare to head into postseason play, they’ll be looking to avoid the same errors that have plagued them in many of their conference road matchups as of late.
From this point on, every game matters, and that’s a reality Tennessee must either accept or its promising campaign could end prematurely.
“We’ve got to learn from this, some of the mistakes we made, we just can’t make,” Barnes said. “At this time of the year, you can’t make those.”