Tennessee – 70
Auburn – 79
AUBURN, Ala. – Tennessee traveled to Auburn for their final game of the 2023 regular season. The Vols needed a win to have a shot the three in the SEC Tournament and to stay in the conversation for a top three NCAA Tournament seed. A loss would put a double bye in jeopardy and they would have to get the win without star point guard, Zakai Zeigler, for the first time and against an Auburn team that was desperate for a win as they tried to build their own resume.
The good news for Tennessee was that Tyreke Key was back from injury, and he hit his first three of the game. Key, along with Vescovi, would be THE key to the success level this Volunteer offense was able to achieve with Zeigler out. Halfway through the first period, it was shaping up to be another close matchup between the two teams. We were tied up at 17 all as the momentum swung back and forth. Down the stretch, Tennessee held the Tigers scoreless for the last three and a half minutes and went on a small run to take a 34-27 lead but Wendell Green Jr. cut that lead to 34-30 with a buzzer-beating three at the half. 50% shooting from Tennessee was a welcome sight as they were without Zeigler. They would look to continue that production for the rest of the game.
Both teams came out for the second half and began trading momentum, shifting blows just like the first half. Johni Broome and Tyreke Key were doing all they could for their respective teams, and it didn’t seem like either team was going to be able to escape the other and build a comfortable lead. It was going to be a fight the whole way. At 13:30 we were all tied up at 45 after Julian Philips threw down one of the most violent dunks of the season.
King Julian. hammer time
📲 https://t.co/2WuphIKFF8 pic.twitter.com/gJgSWtfONz
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) March 4, 2023
Tobe Awaka was having a huge impact by corralling what seemed like every single rebound on the defensive end. Taking away second-chance opportunities from the Tigers in this close of a game was a crucial contribution from Awaka. Then Auburn began to take control. Tennessee mistakes and clutch plays by Auburn allowed them to build a 5-54 lead with 8:30 to play, but it felt more like they were up eight or ten. Tennessee battling back would be a huge confidence boost. Auburn was playing with a level of desperation and energy that Tennessee would have to match the rest of the way.
At 7:30 Vescovi hit what was his fifth three ball of the game to take the lead back. There had been 10 lead changes with 6:30 to play, and there were almost certainly more to come in what was a war on the hardwood. In fact, Auburn would strike back and were leading 69-63 with 3:00 to play due to a field goal drought of over 4:00 for the Vols. With less than 30 seconds to go and down six, Tennessee was going to need a miracle. Rick Barnes called a timeout to organize everyone before a critical inbounds pass. The Vols would foul to send an Auburn shooter to the line who went 1 for 2 but it did not matter in the end as Tennessee could not convert a basket and The Tennessee field goal drought extended to over six minutes. This would be the difference in the end as Tennessee fell 79-70.
Wendell Green Jr. led all scorers with 24 points. Santiago Vescovi led Tennessee with 21. Tobe Awaka led all players with 10 rebounds, while Jaylin Williams led Auburn with eight. Williams also led all players with seven assists, and Vescovi led Tennessee with four
This is what Tennessee Head Coach, Rick Barnes, had to say post-game via Ben McKee of Govols247 on Twitter:
Rick Barnes: We’ve got enough guys that can handle the ball and do what we need to do. You’ll always miss a guy like Zakai, but that’s not why we lost the game today.
— Ben McKee (@benmckee14) March 4, 2023
Rick Barnes: We just had way, way, way too many defensive breakdowns in areas that we haven’t in a long time. I thought coming out of halftime our defense wasn’t very good at all. Then we had too many turnovers coming down the stretch, where you know you’ve got to get a shot.
— Ben McKee (@benmckee14) March 4, 2023
Tennessee’s next game will be in The SEC Tournament. Due to Ole Miss’ loss, Tennessee loses the double bye and will be the 5th seed. They will play the winner of Ole Miss vs South Carolina on Thursday 25 minutes after the noon game goes final.