Lean Towards Tennessee (+950) To Win The SEC
Brandon Huntley-Hatfield had seen exactly one three-point shot go in in his college career when he caught the ball on the left wing with Tennessee trailing, 39-28, just over three minutes into the second half.
The inconsistent role player, caught the ball, fired with confidence and drilled his first triple in conference play.
“It felt really good,” Huntley-Hatfield said of the shot when it left his hand. “I haven’t shot the ball well this year but I shot it with confidence and it went in.
It’s been Auburn that’s gotten huge plays and contributions from its role players in recent matchups between the Tigers and Tennessee, but the Vols flipped the script on Auburn Saturday, using a second half comeback to beat No. 3 Auburn, 67-62.
Let’s start with Huntley-Hatfield. One of Auburn’s greatest strengths as a program is its depth and getting fringe rotation players to contribute in big games.
Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes has been criticized for how he’s handled his inconsistent front court this season. Uros Plavsic and Huntley-Hatfield have had bad stretches of play and are fringe rotational pieces a lot of games.
Barnes keeps giving them opportunities because he knows he’s going to need them down the stretch. It’s starting to pay off.
After a strong performance at Missouri, Huntley-Hatfield gave Tennessee the big time performance they needed. The freshman played his best collegiate game, scoring four points, grabbing eight rebounds — three more than Auburn center Walker Kessler — blocking two shots and posting the second best plus/minus on the team (+10).
“You never know when the light comes on for someone,” Barnes said. “It can happen like that but very seldom does. Brandon in the last couple weeks has been so locked in to our scouting reports. He came in early on his own wanting to continue to know exactly what he had to do today. … The way he got his hands on basketballs, I thought he was key.”
Despite Jabari Smith’s 27 points (nine-of-22 shooting), Huntley-Hatfield did an excellent job when matched up on the future NBA lottery pick. While the fantastic freshman scored 27 points, Tennessee’s front court was fantastic against the conference’s best front court.
Tennessee held Walker Kessler to eight points, five rebounds and four blocks — all of which are below his season average. Huntley-Hatfield said Tennessee’s game plan for Kessler was as simple as “be physical” and the most important part of that was keeping him off the glass.
With Kessler leading the way, Auburn is the SEC’s second best rebounding team. Tennessee completely stifled that, out rebounding the Tigers 54-31 including a 21-11 advantage on the offensive end.
The Tigers’ feast on second chance points. They tallied just eight on Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I don’t think they had any answers for us rebounding wise,” Huntley-Hatfield said.
The Vols have been an excellent first half team at home this season — particularly in big games. Auburn has not been a great first half team, particularly on the road.
Combine that with the Tigers’ three-of-14 shooting from three-point range in the first half, and Tennessee’s, 31-25, halftime deficit seemed very worrisome.
The Tigers used massive second halves to beat Kentucky and Ole Miss this season, and Auburn’s narrow win at Georgia is the only second half its lost in SEC play this season.
Auburn’s 8-3 run to open the second half took us the the Huntley-Hatfield triple discussed in the lede. From there, Tennessee flipped a switch.
The Tigers scored just two points in the next 8:34 as the Vols’ defense changed the game. Auburn missed 12 straight shots from the field and turned it over five times in a stretch that saw Tennessee go from trailing by 11 to leading by four.
“They made a difference,” Barnes said of the Thompson-Boling Arena crowd. “I told our guys— first time I’ve said it honestly since I’ve been here — if we get it going on defense we’ll get this crowd in the game. I’ve never alluded to the crowd. I don’t know if I’ve ever done it in my career. I don’t know why I did it today, but I did say that during a timeout.”
Tennessee flirted with a collapse as Auburn turned a 10-point deficit into a three-point deficit in a mere 17 seconds.
That’s when Kennedy Chandler bailed his team out, driving into the paint tossing up a floater that bounced around every part of the rim before falling through. Tennessee rebounded Wendell Green Jr’s sixth missed three of the game the following possession and closed out its third win over a top-six opponent this season.
Barnes and Tennessee exorcised some Bruce Pearl and Auburn demons, snapping a six game losing streak to the former Vols’ coach and his new team.
Tennessee extended its home winning streak to 16 games in the process. If Mississippi State can lend Tennessee some help with an upset victory over Auburn Tuesday and the Vols take care of business in Athens, a share of the SEC regular season title will be on the line when Arkansas comes to Thompson-Boling Arena next Saturday.