Tennessee fans used to cheer on Bruce Pearl, back in the day when Pearl still served as the head coach for the Volunteers. Now, Volunteer fans have reason to be irritated at their former coach. Bruce Pearl has now led his current team, the Auburn Tigers, to six consecutive wins against Tennessee. Today's 77-72 triumph featured all five Auburn starters in double figures scoring, as the Tigers snapped a three game losing streak. The win was all the more impressive since Auburn played their second straight game without freshman phenom Sharife Cooper. Auburn led the entire second half and even pushed their lead to as much as 12, 72-60, with 1:55 to play. Even though the Volunteers finished the game on a 12-5 run, Auburn was able to make just enough free throws to keep the visitors at bay. The win also pushed Auburn's record in their annual AUtlive Cancer game, which raises funds and awareness for cancer, to 6-0.
Bruce Pearl slid Jamal Johnson to the point guard spot in place of the injured Cooper and the junior responded with one of the biggest games of his career. Johnson finished with 14 points, three rebounds, three assists, and two steals while only committing one turnover in 31 minutes played. Johnson's move to the point allowed Allen Flanigan to return to his more natural off-the-ball guard position after filling in for Cooper in the midweek contest against Florida. Postgame, Pearl said he wanted to let "Al be Al" by playing the position he is more comfortable at. The move paid dividends as Flanigan led all Tigers in scoring, and tied Tennessee's Keon Johnson, with 23 points. Flanigan also grabbed seven rebounds and dished out three assists, along with making the game sealing free throws with four seconds to play.
Tennessee grabbed the early lead scoring eight of the game's first eleven points thanks to a couple of early threes. Auburn quickly tied the score at eight after a couple of treys of their own. Throughout the majority of the first half, neither team could distance themselves from the other as they traded the lead back and forth. Auburn took the lead for good on a Flanigan second chance layup with 2:18 to go in the first half at which point they led 29-28. Auburn then made five free throws in the final minute of the half, including two after a technical foul was called on the Tennessee bench, to go into the locker room leading 34-30. Auburn struggled shooting the ball in the first half (32.4%) but was able to take ten more field goal attempts than the Volunteers due in large part to 11 offensive rebounds in the first half.
The first 13 minutes of the second half played out much like the first half, as Auburn was unable to pull away from the Volunteers. However, Auburn used a 13-5 run spanning about five minutes to turn a four point lead into a 72-60 advantage with just under two minutes to play in the game. Five made free throws allowed Auburn to keep the Volunteers at bay, although five missed free throws and a turnover in the final two minutes by the Tigers kept their fans on the edge of their seats. Auburn shot the ball much better in the second half connecting on 52.4 percent of their shots. Auburn made exactly 50 percent of their threes in the second half and finished the game with nine made treys.
Flanigan and Johnson were joined by their three fellow starters in double digit points. Devan Cambridge scored 15, Jaylin Williams 13, and JT Thor 10. Auburn turned 16 offensive rebounds into 19 second chance points, which was one of the biggest factors in the game. In total, Auburn outrebounded Tennessee 41-34. Babatunde Akingbola grabbed seven rebounds, including five offensive boards, in only eight minutes played. Auburn also had one of their cleanest games of the season with only 12 giveaways. The Tigers actually won the turnover battle forcing 13 Tennessee turnovers including eight steals. As a whole, Auburn's defensive effort was much better than it had been during the Tigers three game losing streak. Jaylin Williams said the team realized this week that they are down to their final three games (now only two) due to the self-imposed postseason ban, which caused the Tigers to ratchet up their energy level, which in turn led to the greater intensity on the defensive end of the court.
Auburn will next be in action Tuesday at 6 p.m. when they travel to Tuscaloosa to take on their biggest rivals, the Alabama Crimson Tide. Auburn will then conclude the season with a rescheduled home match against Mississippi State on Saturday, March 6th at 12 p.m.
The Auburn baseball team (12-16, 1-11 SEC) was swept this weekend at home by top five opponent Mississippi State. Auburn has now faced three top five opponents in the first four weeks of conference play.