Tennessee played perhaps its best 25 minutes of the year to build a 17-point lead at No. 13 Auburn. The Vols’ struggle against Auburn wouldn’t end that easily though, as Auburn used an 18-0 run to erase Tennessee’s lead before hanging on late, 73-66.
Here are three takeaways.
Vols overcome first half foul trouble
When Tennessee’s John Fulkerson picked up his second foul just three minutes into the game, it seemed like the Vols might be in trouble.
The Vols junior big man has been Tennessee’s best offensive option in SEC play and entered the game scoring 18.8 points per game over his last five games.
Tennessee used over 60% shooting in the first 10 minutes of the half to build a two-point lead, but Tennessee’s next best offensive option Santiago Vescovi picked up his second foul on a charge call that led to Rick Barnes’ receiving a technical.
Despite the foul trouble from its two strongest offensive options, Tennessee kept finding a way in the first half led by strong defense and a Jordan Bowden eruption.
Bowden broke out of his slump in a big way, scoring 17 points on 5 of 5 shooting from the field. Bowden was fantastic at the offensive end scoring from beyond the arc, in the midrange and at the basket.
Tennessee was fantastic on the defensive end, holding Auburn to 33 points on 34% shooting. The Tigers settled for tough three-pointers throughout the first half, shooting just three of 14.
It wasn’t a perfect first half for the Vols, they turned it over 11 times and had a lane violation, but the Vols strong performance was good enough to build a 41-33 lead at the break.
“I thought for 27-28 minutes we played the way we think we’re capable of playing,” Barnes said. “It’s not a 27- or 28-minute game, it’s a 40-minute game. Until we understand that and realize ball security has hurt us all year, it will be much of the same going forward.”
Tennessee’s strong first half carried into the opening minutes of the second half, where Bowden scored seven early points. His midrange jumper with 14:31 left gave Tennessee a 17-point lead. What ensued was nothing short of a collapse.
Auburn ensued to go on a 18-0 run, erasing its massive deficit in just 6:27.
Tennessee turned it over five times during the stretch including its first four possessions. Barnes elected not to take a timeout during the stretch that was the difference in the game.
“We come out of timeouts sometimes, and guys don’t know exactly what to do,” Barnes said on his decision not to take a timeout. “To answer your question, ‘do I think a timeout would’ve helped?’ I don’t or I would (have called one). We have to execute.”
Tennessee's inability to take care of the basketball carried over to the second half, where the Vols turned it over 13 more times. It proved to be the difference in the game going down to the final moments.
“It’s just taking care of the ball,” Bowden said. “Turnovers at the end of the game has cost us, especially against a good team like Auburn. You can’t do that, especially on the road.”
The Vols rallied from blowing their lead, taking a three-point lead with five minutes left. With 44 seconds left, an Auburn basket gave them a three-point lead. Tennessee had a chance to tie it, but the possession ended like so many of the Vols’ did on the afternoon.
Josiah-Jordan James turned down an open three-pointer, driving to the basket and turning it over, his sixth of the afternoon.
Auburn would hit its free throws down the stretch to secure the comeback win, its 18th straight at Auburn Arena.
Jordan Bowden game
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Bowden his own section. The senior guard has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism this season, as he’s struggled offensively, but the Knoxville native snapped out of it Saturday afternoon.
Bowden scored a career high 28 points and was the net sum of Tennessee’s offense. Bowden was one of just two Vols to score in double digits. Bowden was efficient and balanced on the offensive end.
“It felt good seeing it go in the basket, but I want to win,” Bowden said. “We’re trying to play down in March. I got to do anything I got to do to get the win.”
Bowden shot nine of 12 from the field, three of four from beyond the arc and seven of seven at the free throw line scoring in the midrange and at the basket.
“I thought he had a really good mindset going into the game,” Barnes said. “He got a lot put on him today because Santi (Vescovi) and Josiah (James) weren’t able to do what we needed them to do. We’re all just happy for them.”
A big moment in the game came right after Tennessee stretched its lead to 17. Santiago Vescovi picked up his fourth foul 80 feet from the basket.
With Vescovi on the bench with foul trouble and James ineffective, Bowden was forced to run the Vols offense from the point guard spot, making it harder for him to score.
Tennessee travels to Fayetteville on Tuesday night to take on Arkansas. Tipoff from Bud Walton Arena is set for 8:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on SEC Network.