AUBURN, Ala. – Trailing 35-32 at halftime, Tennessee point guard Trae Golden knew the Vols had to find a different level in the second half if they were going to avoid a damaging loss at Auburn on Wednesday night.
“We were saying at halftime – we knew this was a must-win,” Golden said. “So we made sure we came out with a lot of energy. I just tried to get to the rim to create plays for myself and my teammates.”
The results weren’t instant, but the Vols found a way to pull out an 82-75 road win.
The Tigers stretched the lead to six points at the 16:36 mark before Golden and the rest of the Vols finally began playing with the needed urgency to pull away down the stretch.
A 3 from Skylar McBee put the Vols up 62-60 with 9:16 remaining in the game. They never looked back, despite a scrappy effort from an Auburn squad celebrating Senior Night – the final home game for five seniors on the team. A pair of free throws from Jordan McRae extended the UT lead to an insurmountable 77-64 advantage with 3:27 left.
“We knew they would come out with a lot of energy and a lot of emotion,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said of Auburn. “For us, it was about settling down. We knew coming in it would be a 40-minute basketball game. I even said to the guys before the game started that it would go down to the wire.”
The Vols grabbed an early 12-5 edge, but the Tigers picked it up as the first half progressed. Led by a group of seniors desperate to snap an eight-game losing streak, the Tigers easily found their way into the UT lane. Guard Frankie Sullivan regularly blew by UT perimeter defenders on his way to a game-high 24 points on 9-of-20 shooting.
He and fellow guard Josh Wallace were effective enough that Martin tweaked the defense in the second half, mixing in zone looks and even extending the defensive pressure full court in a few instances.
“We just needed to guard a little bit differently,” Martin said. “Sullivan was hot and he was rolling, so we didn’t want his head up and having easy looks to where he could just catch the ball and shoot.”
Offensively, the Vols were paced by Golden and McRae, who both scored 21 points to tie for the Tennessee scoring lead. It was a welcomed sight for Golden, who bounced back from a 1-of-10 shooting effort in Tennessee’s 78-68 loss at Georgia on Saturday.
Golden was aggressive in attacking the rim and created looks for himself, while setting up his teammates with seven assists. He never lost confidence despite the poor performance at Athens.
“I didn’t [change my approach],” Golden said. “A couple [shots] rimmed in and out at Georgia. I stayed aggressive. I’m going to take the same shots and continue to be aggressive.”
Forward Jarnell Stokes posted his 13th double-double of the season with 11 points and 12 points. It could’ve been a much more productive evening had he converted his free-throw attempts. The sophomore hit just 1-of-10 from the charity stripe.
“When I get back to Knoxville, I’ll probably make about 100 [free throws] before I go to bed tonight. I hope to never shoot like that again. Tonight, it just felt like it wasn’t my night.”
Stokes’ cold night from the line forced Martin to turn to reserve center Kenny Hall late, who hit two key free throws at the 5:17 mark to extend UT’s lead to 70-62.
“Kenny Hall did not only a good job, but a tremendous job defensively, clogging up the middle and having spacing offensively,” Martin said. “I felt like Kenny Hall, down the stretch, gave us the best chance to win the game.”
The Vols flew out of Auburn Wednesday night and will begin immediate preparations Thursday for a huge game against Missouri (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN). Martin requested that fans pack the arena by 3 p.m.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga