For the second weekend in a row, No. 25 Auburn had a chance to win on the road. The Tigers’ tenacious defense kept the team in the game as they tried to overcome another poor shooting day, and Auburn had one final possession to tie the game and take a slugfest with No. 2 Tennessee (19-4, 8-2 SEC) to overtime.
The ball was in Wendell Green, Jr.’s hands once again, and the junior point guard let one final three-point shot fly. Green’s final attempt was off the mark, and though it looked like he got fouled, with the entire Auburn bench and the crew at ESPN in agreement, there was no call made by the officials, and the Tigers’ chance was gone.
“Most disappointing loss of the year. Had a chance to beat the No. 2 team in the country,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl. “I’ll take some responsibility for some of our late-game looks.”
It was a true “rock fight” between two of the best defenses in the country, but the Volunteers hit just a few more shots than the Tigers, ultimately taking the win 46-43 and keeping pace with Alabama in the SEC.
It was another loss in a hostile road atmosphere for the Tigers, but with many more to come on the schedule, Bruce Pearl is impressed with how his team handled the over 20,000 fans in Knoxville.
“I don’t think we were affected at all by the environment, which is great,” Pearl said. "We weren’t affected by it.”
Tennessee came into the game as a top-scoring defense, ranked No. 1 in both opponent field goal percentage and opponent three-point percentage, giving up just 55.1 points per game this year, ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Auburn started hot, shooting 5-of-7 from the field and taking an early 10-4 lead heading into the first media timeout, but the defense of the Vols locked in after that, and Auburn’s offensive rhythm came apart.
The Tigers went 8-of-48 from the field after that hot start, including 3-of-27 from beyond the arc and a nearly 10-minute drought with no made baskets. Between the 15-minute mark of the first half and the 15-minute mark of the second half, the Tigers made just one shot.
“Tennessee’s a great defensive team,” Pearl said. “They did all the things you need to do to win on the defensive end; they made it hard for us.”
The trio of Jaylin Williams, Allen Flanigan and Green combined for 23 points on 6-of-31 shooting. Green struggled on the offensive end, but he did add four steals, three assists and seven rebounds on the day.
Auburn had just two players in double figures, Johni Broome and K.D. Johnson. Broome finished the contest with 11 points on 5-of-13 shooting, along with nine rebounds, though most of his impact came on the defensive end. The sophomore forward had two steals and three blocks as he anchored the middle without his backup Dyland Cardwell, who was inactive. Broome held Olivier Nkhamhoua to 4-of-16 from the floor and went toe-to-toe with the 7-foot-1-inch senior Uros Plavsic.
With the undersized Broome and no Cardwell to relieve him, Auburn should have gotten punished on the offensive glass. Even with the size disadvantage against the Vols, Auburn held its own, losing the rebounding battle 47-42 and giving up 12 offensive rebounds while the Tigers grabbed seven of their own.
“Those are great numbers against the best offensive rebounding team in our league,” Pearl said.
Along with Broome, K.D. Johnson had his third-straight game with 10 or more points as the junior guard seems to be finding his footing after a significant slump to start the year. Johnson finished the game with 10 points on 2-of-6 shooting, and he was able to get to the free throw line for eight attempts, converting six.
“KD is a great athlete. When you play the best teams on your schedule, you need his athleticism and his experience,” Pearl said. “His effort and his attitude has been really consistent.”
Auburn shot a solid 73.7% from the charity stripe, while the Volunteers struggled, going 10-of-17 from the line.
Tennessee’s primary offense came in the form of Josiah-Jordan James, with the senior guard scoring 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting while also grabbing 14 rebounds, leading both teams in each category. The Vols’ dangerous duo of Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler went a combined 2-of-17 from the field in the win.
Auburn's defense kept the Tigers in the game despite the cold offensive performance, holding Tennessee to just 27% from the field, including 9.5% from three.
College Gameday is on the horizon, but Auburn will have to stay on the road once more before the Crimson Tide come to town. The Tigers’ road trip will take them west to College Station for a February 7 matchup with Texas A&M (15-7, 7-2 SEC). Auburn will be looking for revenge in the Tuesday night matchup which will tip off at 6 p.m. CST on ESPN 2.
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