AUBURN, Ala. — Tennessee basketball led by three points with six minutes to play at Auburn Saturday afternoon. The Vols played well all afternoon and held the advantage in a high level basketball game due to the latest Santiago Vescovi basket on a night full of them.
But then it got away from Tennessee. Auburn went on an 8-0 run to take control of the game. They never relinquished it.
Even at the under four timeout (3:52), Auburn led by only one-point lead and it was anybody’s game.
But Tennessee didn’t make the plays it needed to on either end of the floor and Auburn had the game all but wrapped up with 90 seconds to play.
“Where we left the ball, just gave up too many easy baskets,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “In a game like this, this time of year, you can’t give up easy baskets. And we gave them too many good looks at it.”
The Vols defense wasn’t great all game but was particularly porous in the second half. Auburn’s 49 second half points was six more than they had in the whole first meeting between the two teams.
Tigers’ guard Wendell Green got wherever he wanted on the court on his way to a game-high 24 points as the Vols’ rim defense was nonexistent. Auburn totaled a staggering 1.485 points per possession in the second half.
“We just had way, way, way too many defensive breakdowns in areas that we haven’t in a long time,” Barnes said. “I thought coming out of halftime our defense wasn’t very good at all.”
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It’s usually Tennessee’s offense that lets them down but against Auburn, the Vols’ offense was strong for much of the game.
Senior guard Santiago Vescovi was fantastic, pouring in 21 points on just 13 shots while also primarily handling point guard duties. Josiah-Jordan James, Julian Phillips and Tyreke Key also provided offensive production and gave the Vols enough on that end to win.
“I thought Tyreke and Julian gave us really quality minutes,” Barnes said.
But once Tennessee took a three-point lead, its offense disappeared. The Vols didn’t make a shot from the field in the game’s final 6:32 and their offense stalled as it often turned to isolations.
“I thought we over dribbled. I thought we stood around,” Barnes said. “We were, we always are all year long so much better when we’re moving and cutting and getting the ball moving as opposed to isolations, and we don’t do it a lot but when we do do it, we have to get something out of it.”
The most puzzling offensive possession was a Jonas Aidoo post up down eight with just over a minute to play. Johni Broome blocked the shot immediately, all but icing the game.
“You expect coming into games, both teams to play the way they play, it’s going to come down to the last couple minutes,” Barnes said. “Then we had too many turnovers coming down the stretch, where you know you’ve got to get a shot.”
It’s probably an oversimplification to blame Tennessee’s late game issues on Zakai Zeigler’s absence, especially after it’s lost close games with him and played well offensively for 34 minutes without him.
But when isolation possessions take place — which often occurs in late game scenarios — Zeigler is by far the Vols’ best option. They looked lost without him against Auburn.
Late game losses on the road are becoming a common theme for this Tennessee team. The Vols have lost five straight road games and the Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and Auburn losses were all extremely winnable in the game’s final minutes.
That has Tennessee searching for answers as it enters postseason play as a five-seed in the SEC Tournament in Nashville. They don’t have long to find said answers.