Sports purists may not have recognized what Tennessee and Auburn were doing Saturday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena. It is called Southeastern Conference basketball.
The basic idea is to throw the ball into the nylon string basket. It is OK to bump into opponents and push them around a little bit but felonious assault is not permitted.
Three moderators are charged with maintaining order. Alas, there are 10 combatants.
Tennessee defeated Auburn, 46-43, in a really tough defensive battle that may be remembered for what went wrong instead of what went right.
The Vols hit 27 percent of their field-goal attempts, a continuation of how they lost on Wednesday at Florida.
They hit two of 21 from long distance (9.5 percent). The first was the highlight of Josiah–Jordan James’ very good performance. The second, by Santiago Vescovi, turned into a four-point play that some thought won the game. Clutch free throws by Jakai Zeigler helped.
Auburn was limited to 13 of 56 shooting (24 percent) and 3-of-27 on threes. During a stunning 20 minutes and five seconds, Tennessee’s defense smothered the Tigers’ attack if you can call it that. They got one goal and missed 25 tries. The drought started in the first half and resumed after intermission.
Some of Tennessee’s game was hard to believe. Rare, indeed, are Vol victories with such poor marksmanship.
Auburn’s score was the lowest of the Bruce Pearl era.
The actual finish was a dramatic no-call by officials. Pearl thought the Tigers had been robbed. ESPN analyst Robbie Hummel said he saw a foul. I, being a long-ago official, thought the refs got it exactly right.
Auburn gave guard Wendell Green a good-enough screen to help his chances on a last-gasp long ball to tie. Olivier Nkamhoua beat him to the launch point. His feet were planted and arms straight up.
Green fired, jumped into Nkamhoua and fell back as if shot by a canon. Three officials walked away. Pearl suffered an anxiety attack, gave chase and yelled harshly at the refs — to no avail.
“Wendell got the shot off and got fouled,” said Pearl. “Nothing got called.”
Bruce will have more to say in semi-privacy (friends, relatives and the league office). His perspective might be prejudiced. This little war was for temporary second place in standings. Tennessee is 8-2 and 19-4 overall. Auburn is 7-3 and 17-6.
The Vols looked like sure losers at the start. They trailed by 8-0. James got the home team going. After missing 15 of 17, the scene changed. Nkamhoua put Tennessee ahead at 13-12.
The game never smoothed out. It was rough and tumble. There was no offensive flow. Vescovi was scoreless. Tennessee led at the rest stop, 23-19. Santiago got a goal after nine minutes or so of the second half.
James was a warrior and ended up with 15 points and 14 rebounds. Nkamhoua scored nine. Ziggy contributed six assists, four rebounds and three points – very vital free throws. OK, he missed his 10 shots from the field. Seven were long ones.
Johni Broome, 6-10 transfer from Morehead State, had 11 points and nine rebounds for the losers.
The ending was very difficult. Vescovi’s big hit made it 44-38 with 2:33 to go. Auburn made a three with 30.9 seconds left, forced a turnover with its press, missed a shot and got the rebound basket with 16 seconds remaining. It was 44-43 when Zeigler hit two free throws.
“No question both teams played as hard they could play,” said Rick Barnes. “It was a grind. Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t.
“I kept reminding the team, if you will just play great defense and rebound the ball on both ends, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
The coach was “really, really happy” with Jahmai Mashack. He mentioned the big Vols who were “terrific.”
Barnes said “Josiah’s rebounding was big.”
Asked what he specifically likes about Tobe Awaka and Mashack, Barnes said “just their effort, their competitive spirit, defense. They come in the game and they are flying around, in pursuit of the basketball. Tobe is getting better and better, learning how to guard.
“I think our guys would tell you that when he’s out there, they know he’s going to bring some physicality.”
More Tobe, more.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected]