Auburn's SEC-opening win at No. 23 Tennessee was important to Bruce Pearl in a multitude of ways.
Not only did the Tigers' 94-84 victory on Tuesday night break the team's 20-year dry spell in Knoxville, it solidified a narrative that has been up to speculation since the start of the season: this Auburn team can win in the SEC.
Five Tigers scored in double figures, three-point shooting came alive late and Auburn overcame an early 14-point deficit to win at No. 23 Tennessee in a game that featured 10 lead changes in the second half alone.
“This is obviously a big win for our program against a ranked team, team high in the RPI,” head coach Bruce Pearl said. “Our guys expected to do things like this.”
Auburn (13-1, 1-0 SEC) has now won 11 straight, the team's longest winning streaking since a 14-game tear in 1999-2000. Pearl's squad's current streak is the third-longest in the nation.
Road wins in the conference have been rare for Auburn in the past few years, as Tuesday's victory marked Auburn's first win over a ranked opponent away from home since defeating No. 25 Alabama on Feb. 24, 2007.
“Right now, we’re playing with a huge chip on our shoulder, just showing everybody we can go play with anybody,” Auburn guard Bryce Brown said. “And knocking off a Top-25 team was very big in the start of it.”
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After starting 4-for-25 from downtown, Auburn closed out the contest making five of their last six, including a trio from freshman forward Chuma Okeke.
Following a 28-14 early hole, Auburn closed out the first half on a 28-8 run. Leads were exchanged in the second half, in which the Tigers pulled away thanks to an 11-0 run late.
“We kept our composure as we were down big,” Brown said. “Not very big, but, you know, big enough to where an average team would have just hung it up right there.”
Despite a tightly-called contest from the officials, the Tigers won from beyond the arc.
During the run, Okeke and Brown converted a pair of three-pointers each. Three of the four triples came from an offensive rebound, a category that Auburn thrived on as its primary source of points, out-rebounding the Vols 22-14 offensively and 46-38 overall.
Mustapha Heron quietly put up 16 points, including a pair of viscous slams. The backcourt duo of Bryce Brown and Jared Harper also scored 18 apiece.
“It’s not about somebody trying to get theirs," Pearl said. "It’s just a very, very good team effort.”
As the referees began to crack down on calls in the second half, the free throw numbers began to pile up for both teams. Auburn made the most of its charity stripe opportunities, finishing with a 25-for-29 clip at the line. Tennessee shot just above 80 percent on freebies (30-for-37).
Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner turned in a career-high 25 points, 13 of which came from his perfect night at the foul line. Post presence Grant Williams added 22 points and eight rebounds.
The Volunteers (9-4, 0-2 SEC) have dropped two in a row for the first time this season. A monumental shot at redemption is in the cards however, with a home date against No. 17 Kentucky on tap.
Auburn comes home to face No. 22 Arkansas this Saturday with a chance to kick down the SEC's door and defeat back-to-back ranked opponents. The Razorbacks and Tigers will tip at 5 p.m. CT in Auburn Arena.
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