Tennessee had a win within their grasp, but then they completely threw it away.
The Vols held a 17-point lead over No. 13 Auburn in Auburn Arena with five and a half minutes gone in the second half, and it looked like Tennessee would be able to pull off the huge upset and potentially turn their season around right near the end.
Auburn had other ideas. And so did Tennessee’s offense, apparently.
After freshman point guard Santiago Vescovi picked up his fourth foul with 14:27 to go in the second half, things completely fell apart for the Vols. Auburn went on an 18-0 run to completely erase UT’s lead, and freshman Josiah-Jordan James struggled as the Vols’ primary ball handler. Jordan Bowden also handled point guard duties, which caused him to change his style of play and negate how effective he had been on offense up to that point.
From that point on, Auburn completely dominated Tennessee, and the Vols’ offense looked like elementary school children playing against grown men.
Auburn outscored Tennessee 36-12 over the final 14-plus minutes of the game, and the Vols made just three field goals over the final 14:30 of the contest. Six of their 12 points in that stretch came from the free throw line. James had six turnovers compared to one assist, and he looked extremely flustered as the Vols’ point guard late in the game.
All of that led to Auburn (23-4, 10-4 SEC) escaping with another home victory, 73-66. The Vols (15-12, 7-7) let a quality upset win go right down the drain.
In the first half, Tennessee played complementary basketball. They totaled 41 points and shot 52 percent from the floor, including going 5-of-12 from three. UT held Auburn to 33 points and totaled five steals and two blocks. The Tigers shot just 34.5 percent overall and 21.4 percent from three.
The second half was a totally different story.
Tennessee shot 37.5 percent in the second half and went just 1-of-5 from three. They committed 13 turnovers and scored 25 points. Auburn, meanwhile, shot 50 percent in the half and went 4-of-6 from three, turning it over just four times in the final half of play.
The Vols have yet to win a game this season when allowing an opponent to score at least 70 points (0-7), and Auburn remains undefeated at home (15-0).
Here are our three biggest takeaways from Tennessee’s utter debacle on the road.
Domination, then Complete Collapse
Tennessee was impressive in the first half against the Tigers, and they pushed that domination into the start of the second half as well. But then the Vols had one of the most embarrassing collapses in recent memory.
The Vols held a 54-37 lead with 14:31 to go in the game after Jordan Bowden made yet another bucket. The game certainly wasn’t in hand at that point, but Tennessee was very much in control.
Then, the wheels not only came off, but the engine caught fire and the windshield shattered.
Auburn went on an 18-0 run over a nearly seven minute stretch to completely erase Tennessee’s 17-point lead, taking a 55-54 lead briefly before Jalen Johnson finally responded to give the Vols a 56-55 lead. From that point, it would be a back-and-forth contest until the final 30 seconds.
Tennessee committed 13 second half turnovers after giving the ball away 11 times in the first half. The Vols were able to overcome those giveaways in the first and played well even with John Fulkerson being on the bench for 17 of the opening 20 minutes of the game.
The second half was a completely different story.
Auburn outscored the Vols 15-7 in second-chance points, and the Tigers scored a whopping 27 points off UT’s 24 total turnovers.
Tennessee shot better, rebounded better, and played better overall defense. But the Vols’ offense was abysmal in the second half, and it led to a disastrous loss.
Jordan Bowden Bounce Back
The only bright spot for Tennessee on Saturday was Jordan Bowden.
Tennessee’s senior has been mired in the worst shooting slump of his UT career this season, but he was able to break out of it in a major way against Auburn. Bowden totaled a career-high 28 points on 9-of-12 shooting, including going 3-of-4 from three. He was also perfect from the free throw line, connecting on all seven of his attempts there. Bowden also dished out a team-high six assists and came down with four rebounds as well.
For Bowden, Saturday’s game was the first time he had put up 20 points since scoring 20 on the road in Tennessee’s comeback victory over Alabama. He scored exactly 20 in that game, though he was less efficient, going 5-of-17 from the floor. It’s the fourth time this season Bowden has eclipsed the 20-point mark.
Unfortunately for Bowden, his performance won’t be remembered as fondly as it deserves.
Can’t Beat the Tigers
Tennessee’s inability to beat the Auburn Tigers in men’s basketball has turned into a troubling trend.
Bruce Pearl’s Tigers have now won four-straight games against the Vols dating back to the 2017-18 season. Tennessee lost in Knoxville to Auburn in 2018, fell in the season finale on The Plains in 2019 to lose out on a share of the SEC regular season title, and got blown out in the SEC Tournament Finals just over a week later.
Now, the Vols can add this epic collapse to that list of defeats.
Pearl is now 5-4 against his old school since taking over at Auburn. Tennessee went 4-1 against Pearl’s Auburn teams to start out his AU tenure, but he’s reversed course over the last three seasons.