5 Observations: Auburn 84, No. 5 Tennessee 80

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    (Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

    Tennessee had a chance to take care of business and earn at least a share of the SEC regular season title on Saturday. But they came up short, and now they’ll have to wait and see about their title hopes and SEC Tournament seeding.

    The No. 5 Vols (27-4, 15-3 SEC) walked into a hornet’s nest on Saturday, and the Auburn Tigers (22-9, 11-7 SEC) handed Tennessee their fourth loss of the season, defeating UT 84-78. All four of the Vols’ losses this season have come away from Thompson-Boling Arena.

    Tennessee led for the majority of the game, but Auburn stole the lead back a couple different times in the second half then took it back for good with 3:28 to go after Jared Harper hit a three to give the Tigers a 72-69 lead.

    Controversy would come on Auburn’s next made basket, but more on that in a second.

    Auburn held Tennessee to just 40 percent shooting in the second half, and they only turned the ball over five times the whole game. Chuma Okeke was the big difference-maker for the Tigers, as he totaled 22 points and five rebounds in a team-high 36 minutes. Jared Harper and Bryce Brown both scored 16 for Auburn.

    Grant Williams had a game-high 25 points and pulled down nine rebounds, and Jordan Bone added 17 points and seven assists. Jordan Bowden scored 16 points and brought down six rebounds.

    Here are our five biggest observations from the Vols’ stinging loss.

    Controversial Call

    With under three minutes to go, Jared Harper launched a three for Auburn, and it bounced around the rim. The ball was heading off the basket, but it got tipped back in.

    The thing is, the officials didn’t see the tip-in, even though it was obvious on the TV and to those watching the game in the arena.

    The shot was officially ruled a three and gave Auburn a 75-69 lead instead of a 74-69 lead. In fact, the tip-in could’ve been ruled goaltending by the letter of the rule as well, which would’ve made the score 72-69 still and would’ve given the Vols the ball back.

    It turned out to be a huge call, but it’s difficult to blame the loss on that one missed whistle.

    It’s hard to blame a blown call, even as bad as that one was, for why the Vols lost when they had as many turnovers and missed shots as they did. But it’s clear that that missed play was crucial down the stretch, and it’s yet another black eye on officiating in SEC play this season.

    Killed from Deep

    Say what you want about the officiating, but the Vols weren’t great defensively against Auburn after playing much better defense over the last two weeks.

    The Tigers drained 13 threes on 34 attempts from deep on Saturday, and they were 7-of-16 from three in the second half. Bryce Brown was 4-of-9 from deep, and Chuma Okeke made three of his five three-pointers. Six different Tigers made at least one three. Auburn came into Saturday’s game having attempted more threes than any other SEC team, and they lived up to that billing against the Vols.

    Tennessee, meanwhile, was 9-of-28 from three. The 28 three-point attempts were the second-most they’ve attempted this season, trailing only the 29 they shot against Gonzaga back in December.

    Vols Play Sloppy

    Tennessee was uncharacteristically careless with the ball against Auburn. Part of that was because the Tigers play a pressing defense and do an exceptional job of forcing turnovers, but the Vols also played sloppy.

    UT committed 13 turnovers, including seven in the second half. Jordan Bone only committed one turnover at the point guard position, but Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Jordan Bowden all had two turnovers apiece. Auburn stole the ball away 11 times on Saturday. The Tigers entered Saturday’s game with the 10th-most steals in all of college basketball, totaling 273 in their first 30 games of the season.

    Auburn totaled 19 points off those 13 Tennessee turnovers. The Vols had just five points off Auburn’s five turnovers.

    Not only that, but Admiral Schofield ended up fouling out and never could get into a groove because of foul trouble. He finished with 13 points on 4-of-9 shooting in 25 minutes. He averages 31.7 minutes per game for Tennessee.

    Three different Vols had at least three fouls called on them in the game.

    Tennessee has nobody to blame but themselves for the loss, and Auburn played better than they did down the stretch.

    Turner Stays Ice Cold 

    After scoring 17 points on the road against Ole Miss, Lamonte Turner has been abysmal from the field lately.

    Turner finished Saturday’s game making just two of his 10 field goal attempts (he wasn’t credited with a tip-in that he got, Alexander was credited on the stat sheet), and he had just five points. He was 1-of-8 from three.

    That three was actually Turner’s first made three since the Ole Miss game. He had totaled four points in each of his last two games and was 0 for his last 7 three-point attempts.

    Over his last five games, Turner has made just three of his 26 threes. That’s a lowly 11.5 percent shooting percentage from deep.

    Wait and See

    If the Vols want at least a share of the SEC regular season championship, they have to root for Vanderbilt to do something they haven’t all season: Win a conference game.

    LSU plays Vanderbilt at 8:30 Eastern tonight, and if the Tigers lose, the Vols will remain tied with them atop the SEC standings and will still get a share of the SEC regular season title. Unfortunately for Tennessee, Vandy hasn’t won a single SEC game all season, and the game is being played at LSU. The odds are stacked massively against the Commodores.

    The good news for UT is that LSU will be without their head coach and a star player on Saturday night. Head coach Will Wade is suspended indefinitely, and Jovante Smart will be sitting for the game as well. Both are involved in the FBI wiretap investigation. It was announced on Friday that Wade is suspended indefinitely, and Smart was announced as inactive for tonight’s game during halftime of the Vols-Auburn game.

    The odds aren’t good for Tennessee to get another SEC title, but there’s still hope.

    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.