It was groundhog day again for No. 25 Tennessee, as it traveled to Auburn on Saturday for a much-needed win. But, just as the season has shown us, this Vols team doesn’t know how to string together consecutive performances.
The Vols, coming off a win over Vanderbilt, were looking to capitalize and find consistency as the season comes to an end. But on Saturday, Tennessee (16-7, 9-7 SEC) ran into some of the same problems it’s dealt with for most of the season. A lack of physical play and good shot selection hurt the Vols.
There wasn’t much to think about when it came to playing defense against the Tigers, they were going to shoot a bunch of three’s, hoping to stay with the Vols. The problem that Tennessee ran into was their post presence and dysfunction on offense. The game started with three turnovers from John Fulkerson, which saw him take a seat on the bench early on.
Tennessee led 14-13 at the under-twelve break, as it opened up shooting 38% during the stretch. But again, there was no rhythm for the offense, as Auburn took an 18-16 lead at the under-eight break. The Vols started to find some kind of offense, even if briefly, as they drove the basket. Jaden Springer could only do so much, as he attacked the rim.
The Vols never looked engaged today, period. As the halftime buzzer went off, Auburn led 34-30, with Tennessee shooting 50% from 3-point range and the Tigers shooting 28%. But this is where the Vols continued to screw up, by not taking advantage of mismatches in the paint. Tennessee didn’t score a field goal over the last 2:52 of the first half, leading to more head scratching.
Fulkerson and Yves Pons had a combined four points for Tennessee at the 17:34 mark of the second half. As the half rolled on, it felt like Pons was working harder to get to the basket, as he finished with 10 points and eight rebounds. But Fulkerson continued to struggle, scoring only four points on Saturday.
As Keon Johnson and Springer tried to put the Vols on their back, it was their ability to force the subject around the rim that stood out. Tennessee was lacking a presence in the paint for most of the second half, as Auburn was out-rebounding the Vols 36-26 at the under-eight break.
Auburn went on a stretch where it hit 7-of-9 field goals and the Vols weren’t capitalizing on open looks at the other end. The Tigers led 68-60 at the under-four break.
But today there was only so much that Johnson and Springer could do, as they finished with a combined 43 points. Auburn kept attacking the perimeter and had 19 second chance points, as they kept the Vols at bay in the paint.
The Vols cut it to three points with just over 15 seconds left to play, but they never should have been in that situation. They were out-hustled and looked lethargic at time. Tennessee can’t seem to string together multiple wins and it has bit them hard.
When you have no identity and let two freshman try to will you to a victory, sometimes it might work out, but most of the time it doesn’t. Today was one of those days and the Vols suffered because of it.
I don’t know where this team turns to now, as they have one regular season game remaining against Florida. Then, it’s a trip to Nashville for the SEC tournament and who knows what this team will look like then.
Tennessee has just over three weeks until the NCAA Tournament begins and if they continue to show this type of effort, they might as well not unpack their bags in Indianapolis.