Big game, great rebounding, impressive Vol victory

Marvin Westwestwords

Big game … great crowd … impressive victory … 15-0 at home … one notch out of first place in a really tough league.

Enthusiasm bubbled over at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday, Tennessee 67, Auburn 62 with maybe a small personal something for Rick Barnes over Bruce Pearl.

The Vols stopped a six-game losing streak to the Tigers. The Vols overwhelmed the visitors in an aggressive backboard battle. The Vols were smothering on defense. Auburn hit only 35.4 on field-goal attempts. Guard Wendell Green was the worst offender. He made two of 15.

The Tigers must have been pretty good on defense, too. Tennessee hit 32.8. Believe it or not, the Vols were better from three-point range than two.

Since points and not shooting percentages decide games, here are the scoring leaders: Santiago Vescovi 14, Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler 13 each and Josiah-Jorden James 10.

Rebounds were more decisive (54-31). Leaders were John Fulkerson and JJJ with nine each, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield with eight, Uros Plavsic with seven and Jonas Aidool with five.

Auburn superstar Tabari Smith had 27 points and eight rebounds. Towering Walker Kessler blocked four shots and discouraged others.

Barnes had some kind words for Huntley-Hatfield.

“He’s got a really good feel for the game. The way he got his hands on basketballs. I thought he was a key. I’ll tell you one thing we did find. We found a guy that can inbound the ball for us at the end of the game. He was terrific. He made the plays, which was really, really key.”

How big was the win?

“Auburn is a terrific team.”

Tennessee got off to a better start. Auburn seized the lead with a 13-0 run. The Vols endured nine turnovers in the first half. The Tigers led by seven at intermission.

The visitors were up by 11 early in the second half. The Vols recovered with an 11-0 run. Auburn contributed. It missed 13 of 16 shots. Tennessee guards wouldn’t let the Tigers run their offense. Guard play was a mismatch.

“I thought Zakai’s ball pressure was huge,” said Barnes. “I thought it was really huge. We started making some shots…When we needed some, we made some.”

The home team surged ahead with a flurry of free throws. Zeigler hit eight of nine. Vescovi hit six of six. Chandler was the odd man out. He missed three. He also hit the clinching goal, a drive to the rim when the difference was only three.

“I knew we were going to have to score again. I knew that. I did,” said Barnes said.

“I would have felt a lot better if we make our free throws and get the ball inbounds … Believe it or not, we spent a lot of time this week and we have the last two weeks, working on special situations. We have to do a better job in that area.”

The finish tested Barnes’ nerves a wee bit more. He said the Vols made the last two minutes more exciting than was necessary. They had a shot-clock violation, committed two fouls, uncorked a bad pass and lost the ball on a dribble.

Barnes disagreed with some fans’ assessment of Auburn. They chanted “Overrated, overrated.”

The coach said he never has understood that putdown.

“We just had a great, quality win against a team that is not overrated. We just beat a top-5 team.”

Barnes said the chant diminishes what the Vols accomplished.

“I have never understood it. I never have. When fans start doing that, I am like stop. Give us credit. We just beat an outstanding basketball team. I have never enjoyed it when fans do that. Our guys work so hard and won a game against an outstanding team.”

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]

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