On Saturday, Auburn upset No. 25 Tennessee 77-72 for the Tigers' sixth consecutive victory over the Volunteers. The win was Auburn's second win over a Top 25 team this season, with both wins coming inside Auburn Arena.
“Our guys just beat a team that’s got a 15 NET, a team that was picked to win our league, and did it with tremendous effort and energy,” said head coach Bruce Pearl. “I was so proud of our guys in their preparation.”
Auburn (12-13, 6-10 SEC) has now won its last six meetings against the Volunteers. This victory marks Auburn’s first since February 9th, ending a three-game losing streak.
“It’s been obviously tough this season because we haven’t had as much success as we would’ve liked and we knew how young we were,” Pearl said. “So there hasn’t been a ton of joy after games. But you could see the kids just haven’t quit.”
Allen Flanigan and Devan Cambridge put the scoring load on their shoulders without freshman point guard Sharife Cooper. Flanigan had 23 points and Cambridge added 15.
Auburn's starters scored 75 of the team’s 77 total points, with the lone bench points coming from a Dylan Cardwell dunk.
“Our starters were terrific. They all stepped up in a huge, huge way,” Pearl said.
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Jamal Johnson played point guard for most of the contest, allowing Flanigan to have his monster day at his more natural shooting guard position.
With Johnson at the point, Flanigan got more off-ball matchups that saw him driving past his defenders to the basket all afternoon, picking up six and-1 opportunities. Johnson and Flanigan only committed three combined turnovers on the afternoon and the tandem combined for six assists.
Johnson scored 14, nailing two 3-pointers, and scored six points from the free-throw line.
“I thought Jamal Johnson only having one turnover was incredible,” Pearl said. “We did make an adjustment. I decided to play Al (Allen Flanigan) at his best position and let Al be Al. We played Jamal at the point and let him get us into stuff.”
Tennessee may boast the No. 26 defense in the nation and the 2020 SEC Defensive Player of the Year in Yves Pons, but Auburn was consistently able to drive to the rim. The Tigers scored 22 points in the paint and outrebounded the larger Volunteer team by a 41-34 margin.
Flanigan and Stretch Akingbola had seven boards each.
To start the second half, Cambridge drove to the right side of the rim four times, scoring on an and-1 opportunity to increase Auburn’s lead to five early. The points Auburn led by wavered, but the Tigers never relinquished the lead past the two-minute mark in the first half.
Auburn spent almost 30 minutes leading Tennessee, only trailing for about six minutes early in the contest. Tennessee made a late run, closing the game to within four points in the waning minutes of the game, but Johnson and Flanigan stepped up and took over.
Both Johnson and Flanigan made 3-pointers and nailed clutch free throws late in the game to secure Auburn’s victory.
With under six minutes remaining, Flanigan hit a 3-pointer and then two free throws to extend Auburn’s lead to nine points, its largest lead of the game. A few minutes later, Johnson went 2-for-2 from the charity stripe with under 2:30 to play, extending Auburn’s lead to 10.
“Guys made shots. Guys made plays,” Pearl said. “I just thought the fact that we were able to turn corners a little bit on Tennessee in those double gaps made a difference.”
The afternoon heroics of Auburn’s veteran players should not overshadow the effectiveness of Jaylin Williams. For the game, Williams had 13 points, earning eight of those points from the free-throw line.
Pearl tasked Williams earlier in the week to get to the free-throw line more often than he had been. Pearl told Williams that he was only 17-31 from the free-throw line all season and should be one of the SEC's premier mismatches.
Williams must have taken Pearl’s comments to heart because the sophomore took five trips to the line, going 8-for-10.
“BP (Bruce Pearl) was talking to me earlier and said I only took 30-some free throws on the year and only made 17,” Williams said. “So, I’ve got to get to the free-throw line more. In my head, I said I needed to be more aggressive when I get in the paint. That helped a lot when we had that talk. As a team, we had to play more aggressively to beat Tennessee today.”
Auburn will return to the court on Tuesday, traveling to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 6 Alabama. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. CST with the game airing on ESPN.
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