AUBURN, Ala— Tennessee’s basketball team continued to sputter Saturday, losing to undermanned Auburn, 77-72.
Auburn led for nearly 30 minutes and after leading 5-0, Tennessee would never lead by that many again as the Tigers picked up their sixth straight win over the Vols.
Both offenses struggled in the first half, especially at creating open looks.
Auburn had a great feel for Tennessee’s offensive sets and heavily sagged off Davonte Gaines, John Fulkerson and Olivier Nkamhoua whenever they were in the game. With Auburn clogging the paint, Tennessee struggled to get open looks. Turnovers were also a major issue for Tennessee in the first half, coughing up the ball eight times.
“We need (to) take care of the ball better, plain and simple,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said.
Luckily for the Vols, they shot the ball well from beyond the arc, six-of-12 in the first half, to keep them in striking distance of Auburn at halftime, 34-30.
Auburn’s offensive issues were more understandable as the Tigers’ were without their star point guard Sharife Cooper. Entering the game, Auburn was 1-6 against non mid major opponents and 0-4 against SEC opponents with Cooper out of the lineup.
In the first half, Auburn shot a putrid 33% from the floor and 28% from three-point range but was able to build its halftime lead thanks to 11 offensive rebounds and 11 second chance points.
“You just said the game plan,” Barnes said to a reporter asking about rebounding. “Get back and rebound, rebound, rebound the ball. We talked about it. We had rebounds at times, we got stripped with it.”
Still, it was Auburn, without its go-to scorer who found offensive life in the second half, beating Tennessee’s guards off the dribble consistently while shooting 52% from the field and 50% from three-point range in the second half.
“It’s still the one-on-one defense,” Barnes said. “I thought VJ (Victor Bailey) was ineffective on the defensive end. He was getting blown by. I thought Santi(ago Vescovi) tried to battle and do some things there. … With (Allen) Flannigan, everyone knows he wants to go left, everyone knows it. They know it and to keep letting him get to his strong hand is just not being locked in on the scouting report. That goes back to two words, ‘Mental toughness.’”
Auburn led by three to 10 points for most of the second half with the Vols tying the game just once at the 12:42 mark in the half. Eventually Auburn would open up a 12-point lead with under two minutes to play before Tennessee put together a late comeback bid that came up short.
Tennessee’s freshman duo of Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson were far-and-away the Vols’ best offensive weapons Saturday.
Johnson tied the game high with 23 points on nine-of-17 shooting from the field. Johnson also added three rebounds and didn’t turn the ball over, a problem for him as of late.
Springer, playing the bulk of his minutes at point guard, tallied 20 points on six-of-14 shooting, five rebounds and six assists.
“Freshmen are being put in some positions that honestly they shouldn’t have to be,” Barnes said. “If our older, more experienced guys would do more— just a little bit more, not a lot, just a little bit more and not put so much pressure on those guys to make them feel like they have to do everything.”
The loss marks Tennessee’s fourth straight 1-1 week as the Vols’ continue to fail to find consistency. The Vols are 6-6 in their last 12 games after being ranked in the top 10 for the first two months of the season.
“I feel like confidence definitely is missing,” Springer said. “Some of the players are in and out. I feel like some of them show up and sometimes they don’t. I feel like we get caught up in other stuff too much and we need to just lock in to what’s going on, on the court and not worry about anything else.”
Tennessee now has eight days off before playing its regular season finale on Sunday, March 7 versus Florida. Tip-off from Thompson Boling Arena is set for noon ET and will be broadcast on ESPNU.