Defense carries Vols to win over Auburn

Published 12:47 pm Tuesday, February 7, 2023

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A stellar defensive performance and a clutch 4-point play in the final minutes helped lift second-ranked Tennessee to a 46-43 win against No. 25 Auburn on Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.

After the Tigers clawed their way back to cut it to a two-point game despite offensive woes, Santiago Vescovi delivered a strike from beyond the 3-point arc on the left wing while also drawing a foul. The senior guard converted the 4-point play with 2:33 left in the game to give the Vols (19-4, 8-2 SEC) a 44-38 advantage.

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Auburn (17-6, 7-3 SEC) refused to go away, cutting the lead to one point with less than 20 seconds left, but Zakai Zeigler ended the Tigers’ late rally by knocking down a pair of free throws to restore a three-point cushion

A clean and effective vertical contest by Olivier Nkamhoua on a buzzer-beating 3-point attempt by Tigers guard Wendell Green Jr. ensured that the potential game-tying shot missed the mark, sealing Tennessee’s second straight win over Auburn.

Defensively, Tennessee held AU to 24 percent (13-of-56) shooting from the field and 3-of-27 from beyond the arc. During a staggering stretch of 20:05 of game play, the Volunteers defense shut down the Auburn offense, allowing 1-of-26 shooting between 15:40 in the first half and 15:35 in the second half. Tennessee held the Tigers to a season-low-tying 43 points, which also marked the fewest points in an SEC matchup by an Auburn squad during the Bruce Pearl era.

With offense coming sparingly, Josiah-Jordan James offered a consistent presence on that end of the floor, as he recorded the fifth double-double of his career with 15 points and 14 rebounds. Nkamhoua finished with nine points, two boards, two assists and two steals. Vescovi chipped in seven points, while Zeigler added six assists, four rebounds and three points.

The win marked Tennessee’s fourth against a top-25 opponent this season and was the Vols’ 25th victory over a ranked team during the Rick Barnes era.

Both teams opened the game with slow starts offensively. At the second media timeout, Auburn held a 10-6 advantage despite hitting five of its first seven shots to open the contest. The Vols had good looks at the basket but couldn’t get their shots to fall.

After connecting on two of its first 17 attempts, Tennessee offense finally started hitting from the field and used a 15-5 run to pull ahead 15-13 with 7:16 left in the first half. During the stretch, Tennessee held the Tigers without a field goal for nearly 10 minutes.

The Volunteers defense continued to hold strong, as Auburn missed 18 of its final 19 shots and scored only nine points during the last 15:40 of the opening frame. The Tigers matched their season low in scoring at halftime with 19 points, shooting 23 percent from the field and 1-of-11 from beyond the arc.

Tennessee finished the period shooting 29 percent from the floor, but a 21-9 run to close the half gave the Vols a 23-19 advantage at the break. James led the way with nine points, five boards and one assist during the opening stanza.

The defensive battle continued in the second half, as both teams connected on just two shots from the field during the opening eight minutes of the frame. After Auburn tied things up with back-to-back buckets, a Tobe Awaka putback marked the first of four unanswered baskets by the Vols, pushing their lead to 36-28 with 9:09 left.

Auburn wasn’t going away, though. The Tigers knocked down a pair of shots and hit two free throws to pull within four points at 40-36 going into the final media timeout.Two more Auburn free throws cut the game to one possession. Vescovi then delivered his clutch 4-point play to make it a 44-38 game with 2:33 left. The 3-pointer was his first and Tennessee’s second and final long ball in the contest.

Auburn hit a 3-pointer of its own with 30.9 seconds left and then got the ball back with 23.8 on the clock after forcing a Tennessee turnover with its press. On the next possession, the Tigers grabbed the rebound on a missed basket and converted the second-chance opportunity to make it a 44-43 game with 18 seconds left. After getting fouled on the inbounds play, Zeigler sank both free throws to push the lead back to three and seal the victory for the Volunteers.

For the game, Tennessee shot 27 percent from the field and 2-of-21 from beyond the arc.

The Vols travel to the state capital to take on Vanderbilt on Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. CT in Memorial Gymnasium. The game will be televised on SEC Network and broadcast on the Vol Network.