Auburn had a great shot to clinch the SEC and take the 1-seed for the upcoming SEC Tournament with a win at Tennessee today, but the Vols turned around what was looking like it was going to be a rout and constricted the Tigers in the second half on the way to a 67-62 win at home.
The Tigers lost to Tennessee for the first time in seven tries, as they overcame a 39-28 deficit and ran the Tigers out for the rest of the game from that point on. Zakai Zeigler led the Vols with 13 off the bench, but it was even scoring effort for Tennessee across the board. Jabari Smith led Auburn with 27 points and K.D. Johnson had 18 points as well. However, Auburn shot just 5-24 from downtown, and got an empty scoring effort from the point guard position with Wendell Green and Zep Jasper combining for only 5 points.
The first half mostly began with both sides struggling on offense, but Tennessee made up for their poor shooting with a wild effort on the offensive glass. After the Volunteers got up 5-0, Jabari Smith opened the scoring for Auburn with a jumper that rattled in. Moments later, trailing 10-4, Auburn made a mini-run that included another jumper from Smith and a three from Wendell Green to give the Tigers an 11-10 edge at the 14:01 mark of the first half.
Tennessee put together a bit of a run, and rolled up a 19-13 advantage with the Tigers really going cold and failing to hit a bevy of open shots. Finally, Auburn found a bit of lightning after a pair of K.D. Johnson foul shots. Johnson then got a steal that led to a layup, which was followed by Wendell Green stealing the inbound and laying in the ball for a 19-19 tie. Auburn posted the next seven points as well to cap a 13-0 run and take a 26-19 lead. Tennessee pulled within a 28-25 deficit at the end of the half but Jabari Smith buried a straight-on triple to end the first twenty minutes with Auburn ahead 31-25.
The second half took a little while to get going, as neither team scored for two minutes, and then a K.D. Johnson layup pushed Auburn’s lead to 10 at 35-25. After a Zakai Zeigler score for Tennessee, Jabari Smith committed a turnover and then pulled down a tough layup and got whistled for a technical foul for taunting Tennessee center Uros Plavsic. Kennnedy Chandler made one of two free throws, but Auburn then decided to involve Walker Kessler a little more in the action on offense. Kessler scored on a pair of foul shots and then on a layup on consecutive possessions to build the Auburn advantage to 39-28, and a Brandon Huntley-Hatfield three made it 39-31 Tigers at the under-16 timeout.
Tennessee went on a run with the bench bunch on the floor for Auburn, posting an 8-0 spurt to pull within a 39-36 score with 13:20 to play. A Zeigler three as the shot clock expired tied the game at 39-39, and Jabari Smith hit two free throws to regain the lead for Auburn at 41-39 as we hit the under-12 timeout. Auburn had missed 7 straight shots as John Fulkerson hit a skyhook to tie the game at 41 and the midway point of the half passed with Auburn on a streak of missed field goals that had lasted for more than six minutes.
Walker Kessler committed a goaltend on a Chandler layup, and then a trap by Tennessee forced Zep Jasper to call timeout with 9:46 to go and the Vols holding their first lead since 19-17. Out of the break, Kennedy Chandler scored in transition to give Tennessee a 45-41 lead, but K.D. Johnson answered on the other end with a score and foul to break a streak of 9:23 without a made field goal. Despite that, Auburn only trailed by two points coming out of the under-8 timeout. A Santiago Vescovi three gave Tennessee a 50-44, but Jabari Smith answered with a three that then got erased by a Josiah Jordan-James triple on the other end.
Tennessee continued to stay hot, and Auburn got more and more frustrated, with the Vols spending the next couple of minutes at the foul line on the way to building a 60-49 lead at the final break of the game. Auburn tried to claw back into it, with Jabari Smith hitting a three and getting fouled with a minute to play, pulling the Tigers within a 63-60 deficit. However, Chandler got a friendly roll on a floater to reestablish a two-possession game and Tennessee clinched the game at the foul line in the closing seconds.
- Auburn’s road troubles continued, and so did the problem with opposing teams getting hot in the late stages of the game. For each of the last three losses, Auburn has held a multi-possession lead in the second half and fallen. There’s a number of things that happen in these contests, but the one common theme is that the home crowd is able to help will their side to a victory. Auburn won’t have any more super hostile road atmospheres the rest of the way (Mississippi State notwithstanding), and on a neutral court, the Tigers’ talent should be able to take advantage.
- In these losses, Auburn isn’t getting blown out, and they’re not giving up at the end. The Tigers lost by 4 to Arkansas, 1 to Florida, and 5 today. If not for that last shot by Chandler, Auburn is shooting for the tie at the end. Home court is worth a lot, and these teams won’t have it in Tampa or beyond.
- The guard play is troubling. Wendell Green and Zep Jasper combined for 5 points today, and when Walker Kessler doesn’t do much, we can’t afford to have a slow night from the guards too. It’s tough to see how much of this is just extremely tough road venues, but it’s not fun to think about heading into March.
- Auburn can still win the SEC, they just have to win the next two games to win the conference outright, and go 1-1 to split the title with Kentucky and Tennessee (assuming those two win out). If Auburn doesn’t finish at 15-3, then Auburn risks losing the 1-seed in Tampa.
Auburn will stay on the road and visit Mississippi State this coming Wednesday night for an 8 PM CST tip-off in Starkville. The Bulldogs took care of business against Vanderbilt today at home by a score of 75-69.