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About Last Night: Auburn 84, Tennessee 80

What a way to finish the regular season.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn did something yesterday that hasn’t happened in 24 years.

Tony Barbee didn’t do it.

Jeff Lebo didn’t do it.

You have to go back to Cliff Ellis’ first season on the Plains to find the last time that the Tigers beat a top five opponent.

It was January 24th, 1995, that Auburn beat #5 Arkansas 104-90 at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. It speaks volumes that the Tigers haven’t had too many opportunities over the last two and a half decades to notch another win over a highly-ranked team of that caliber, but Bruce Pearl’s bunch finally did it yesterday in the final regular season game of the year.

That was awesome. It was the best possible way to send out seniors Bryce Brown, Horace Spencer, and Malik Dunbar, who all contributed in their own ways in the victory. Bryce hit 4-9 three-pointers to move within one of the SEC’s all-time career three-pointers list (345 total — behind Allan Houston’s 346). Horace (Gilbert) scored just 2 points, but had 5 rebounds and 2 blocks. Malik provided the spark multiple times with 5 points, 2 steals, 2 assists, and 3 rebounds. He had a huge steal and dish to Chuma Okeke for a dunk that helped Auburn staunch the bleeding in the first half.

Speaking of Chuma Okeke, I think we’ve finally found Mustapha Heron’s replacement. It took a while, but Chuma’s turned into an absolute star. In yesterday’s win, he scored 22 points and got the better of SEC Player of the Year candidates Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. That line makes ten straight double-digit scoring outings, and means that Chuma hit that mark in 15 of 18 SEC games this year. He’s been at his best in March, where Auburn’s won four games in a row.

Most important things first — Auburn clinched the 5 seed in the SEC Tournament that starts Wednesday.

Honestly, it’s the best possible draw. Auburn will get the winner of the Georgia/Missouri matchup on Wednesday night in the 12/13 game. Auburn went 3-0 against those teams this year, winning two of those meetings on the road. Then, should the Tigers get through, they’ll meet South Carolina in the quarterfinals on Friday. Frank Martin’s Gamecocks had the same record as Auburn at 11-7, but won the tiebreaker by virtue of that head-to-head matchup in Columbia back in January. I don’t believe I’m along in thinking that Auburn’s chances against South Carolina would be much better in Nashville than at Colonial Life Arena.

After that, if Auburn advances through to the semifinals, they’ll probably see top seed LSU. There’s likely too much to delve into in regard to the Bayou Bengals, but they currently don’t have a head coach, and may or may not have different injury/eligibility issues with key contributors. Of the remaining top seeds, I’d want another shot at LSU before getting Tennessee or Kentucky again. If Auburn can beat LSU and make the SEC Championship Game, then who knows exactly how high the seed line would rise in the NCAA Tournament.

It all stems from yesterday’s win, which ranks among the top wins by an Auburn team this millennium. The only ones I might rank ahead of it are the Round of 32 game against Wake Forest back in 2003 that sent Auburn to the Sweet Sixteen, and last year’s home finale against South Carolina that clinched the SEC Championship. The difference between this year’s closer and last year’s is that we limped to the finish and only won the SEC by the skin of our teeth. This season, Auburn’s playing its absolute best basketball as we head into the postseason. The Tigers are 4-0 in March, have won twice on the road, and have won at home despite not really killing the game where they usually dominate.

Yesterday, Auburn hit 13 threes, but took 34 attempts overall. 38% isn’t bad, but it’s not the kind of shooting that we thought we might need at home to knock off Tennessee. Meanwhile, the Vols hit nearly everything in the first half (55%), and shot 48% for the game. UT out-rebounded Auburn 39-27. However, Auburn was within two possessions at halftime and came out of the intermission firing on all cylinders.

It took 108 seconds for the Tigers to erase a 41-35 deficit and take the lead. Auburn went 13-24 from the field after halftime, and hit 16-21 foul shots in the second half as well. There was a concerted effort to have more play under the basket, and it worked. Admiral Schofield fouled out and didn’t have a great game since he was bodied by Chuma Okeke for most of the day. Grant Williams got his, but Auburn won its fair share of battles. Jared Harper and Samir Doughty did enough from the perimeter (and got lucky a couple times) to make the gap insurmountable late.

All in all, it resulted in a huge win, and a big celebration for the Tigers.

With the way that Auburn’s playing now, there’s a ton ahead of these guys. The latest bracket projections have the Tigers as a 6 or 7 seed, but with a couple wins in the SEC Tournament, they could rise to a 5. Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket was updated on the 8th, so it came before yesterday’s win. We’ll have to see where the Tigers are projected, but this is a much different feeling than last year. The team we saw yesterday is a Sweet Sixteen team, and with a good draw, could go even higher.

Let’s enjoy March. War Eagle!