Auburn’s offense went ice cold in the second half against Tennessee, and fell to the No. 17 Volunteers 67-62 on Saturday.
With the loss, Auburn still remains atop the SEC standings in first place. The Tigers need to win one of their remaining two games to clinch at least a share of the SEC regular season title.
However, Auburn will first have to deal with its third straight road loss.
“Disappointed,” said head coach Bruce Pearl. “Need more guys to step up offensively.”
Jabari Smith did all he could to pull his team to victory, scoring a game-high 27 points. Over the final 68 seconds of the game, Smith scored 10 straight points.
"We have not been great on the road as of late,” Smith said. “Trying to win on the road is not easy in the SEC."
At half, Auburn led the game 31-25.
Smith had 11 points, K.D. Johnson had nine and the Tigers seemed to be in control. While losing the rebounding battle in the first half, 28-17, Auburn was winning the turnover battle 9-3. Wendell Green Jr. even added four steals.
Any momentum Auburn had built came to a screeching halt midway through the second half.
In the opening minutes of the second half, Auburn had put together an 11 point lead.
Center Walker Kessler scored four straight points to put the Tigers ahead 39-28. What followed was an 11-0 run by the Volunteers to tie the game at 39 apiece with under 13 minutes to play.
Auburn regained the lead 41-39 behind two Smith free throws, but lost the lead the following possession. The Tigers never led again.
After Kessler’s bucket with 16:41 to go, Smith’s free throws were the only made shots by the Tigers for over nine minutes.
"Didn't make shots,” Pearl said. “Didn't execute. I don't have the answer."
In the second half, only three Tigers scored in Johnson, Smith and Kessler.
Smith had 16, Johnson had nine and Kessler added six. But without any sort of real scoring opportunities outside of Smith, Auburn was outscored 42-31 in the second half.
Auburn’s point guard duo of Green and Zep Jasper did not record a bucket in the second frame. Green went 0-7 from the field and Jasper did not attempt a shot.
“Were our guards able to keep them in front? Not very much,” Pearl said. “Our guards couldn't keep their guards in front. And it cost us a lot."
For the game, Green scored five points and added five rebounds. Jasper did not score, adding just one rebound and one steal.
Aside from poor guard play, Auburn was crushed in the rebounding department.
Tennessee snagged 54 rebounds on the night, its highest total in almost a decade, with 21 of the total coming on the offensive glass. With Tennessee’s rebounds, the team was able to generate 19 second chance points.
“No excuses rebounding,” Pearl said. “The team that played more physically and with more energy would win the game."
It took Auburn to the 1:14 mark in the second half for the Tigers to score more points than the Volunteers had rebounds. Up until Johnson’s pair of made free throws with 74 seconds to go, Auburn had 52 points to Tennessee’s 53 boards.
"We got to rebound better as a team, guards and bigs,” Smith said.
On the night, Auburn was out-rebounded 54-31.
“We got to figure out ways to get guys open and make the offense a little easier,” Smith said. “I feel like they were just a good defensive team. They didn’t change anything. Crowd just got into it a little bit and we had some self-inflicted issues.”
Auburn’s next test is a road matchup at Mississippi State. When asked if he is worried about going on the road again, Pearl said his team can’t be.
“You can’t push the panic button,” Pearl said. “You can’t be afraid to fail.”
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Henry Zimmer is from Jacksonville, Florida, and is currently in his fifth year with The Plainsman. He is currently the Assistant Sports Editor and can be followed on Twitter here: @henryzimmer