It was a long time coming, as the Auburn Tigers (20-11, 10-8) finally overcame its end-of game woes to knock off the No. 12Tennessee Volunteers (22-9, 11-7) on Saturday.
This Auburn team has shown the ability to compete and even play better than many of its higher-rated opponents, yet they have been unable to win the games in the end. This time around, however, the Tigers were determined to change the narrative.
Senior Allen Flanigan emphasized the importance of finishing games yesterday when previewing this matchup.
"It's about finishing games out in the final four-minutes," said Flanigan.
With four minutes left in the game, Auburn led 64-63, and this time there was no looking back. Auburn was not going to let another game slip away. In the final four minutes, the Tigers went on a 15-7 run.
From the opening tip, this game was highly competitive. For most of the first half, the game was back and forth. However, Tennessee went on a 7-0 run in the final minutes to take a 34-27 lead. While a seven-point deficit would not have been completely detrimental, it would have given the Vols all the momentum at halftime. Fortunately for Auburn, Wendell Green Jr. knocked down a contested corner three at the buzzer to cut the lead to four.
That shot carried over into the start of the second half, which the Tigers started on an 11-5 run led by eight points in four minutes from Johni Broome. Broome was a non-factor at the end of the Alabama game due to foul trouble, but he made his presence known against the Vols. He finished with 17 points including shooting 2-4 from three-point range.
"His confidence is out of the roof," said Jaylin Williams.
Tennessee would respond to Auburn's run mainly due to a big day from senior guard Santiago Vescovi. Vescovi finished with 21 points. Arguably the biggest reason Auburn was able to separate themselves from Tennessee and finish out the game was due to holding Vescovi scoreless in the final seven-minutes of the game.
After seemingly having no answer for him for most of the game, what changed in the final minutes? The Tigers subbed Zep Jasper back into the game and he shut down the veteran guard.
"Zep Jasper's defense won us that game," said Pearl. Auburn's defense has been their strength, but getting stops to close games out has been an issue. "We finally guarded at the end of the game," said Pearl.
Although the Tigers' head coach may want to focus on defense, Auburn's offense was impressive throughout against arguably the best defense in the country.
"To put 79 points on Tennessee is hard to do," said Pearl.
Along with Johni Broome's 17 points, Allen Flanigan had 16 points, and Jaylin Williams added 13. However, the most impressive offensive outing of the game came from Wendell Green. Green has struggled here recently, but with the injury to Tennessee's starting point guard Zakai Zeigler, the opportunity was there for Green.
"Wendell was terrific... I'm happy for him to bounce back after a couple of tough outings," said Pearl. Green knocked down a couple of tough threes, but the majority of his points came from getting to the basket and either making layups or getting to the foul line.
"They were switching their big on me," said Green. That type of defense allowed Green to use his quickness to get to the basket.
Overall, the Tigers played some of their best basketball of the season in a crucial game. "We knew we had to get a win. We need some momentum going into the tournament," said Green.
As Auburn's point-guard mentioned, next up for the Tigers is the SEC Tournament. With Saturday's win Auburn has put themselves in a good position to now make the NCAA Tournament, but a good showing in Nashville certainly would not hurt. Teams want to play their best basketball in March, and if Auburn is able to win a few games in the SEC Tournament, they maybe able to improve their seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
"It's all about tournament play now," said Pearl.
It was a long, and at times frustrating regular season for this year's squad, but to get a big-time win to close out the regular season was just what they needed. Now, the real season starts in college basketball - March Madness. It starts with the SEC Tournament and then hopefully for the Tigers, the NCAA Tournament. How will the Tigers fair in March? That question remains to be answered, but if the regular season proved anything, they will give everything they have in each game from here on out.