Photo via Tennessee Athletics
Tennessee’s offense was pungent in its Wednesday night loss at Florida. It was pungent again Saturday afternoon against No. 25 Auburn.
The Vols stayed locked in on the defensive end for 40 minutes against the Tigers and they needed every second of it, outlasting Bruce Pearl and Auburn, 46-43.
“We said hey, if we will just play great defense and rebound the ball on both ends, we’ll give ourself a chance,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “Reminded them that we beat Maryland and shot 29 percent. But both teams played extremely hard.”
Tennessee beat Maryland shooting 29%. They one upped themselves against Auburn, making just 27% of shots in the win. It was the Vols’ second worst shooting performance of the season but one that was just good enough to get the job done.
“That’s something coach says all the time we’re confident that if we play defense and rebound the ball that’s where our main focus is,” senior shooting guard Santiago Vescovi said. “We’re going to be able to create enough points to win a game.”
That’s not a luxury many teams around the country have. At least not at the level Tennessee does. The Vols’ defense is so dominant that it gives them a chance to win every single game if its at its best.
And that’s the difference in Tennessee’s loss against Florida and its win over Auburn. The Vols crumbled defensively down the stretch in Gainesville and let a tight game get away from them and turn into a comfortable Florida victory.
Playing at Thompson-Boling Arena instead of on the road was also beneficial, but Tennessee’s defensive consistency and intensity was clearly night-and-day different.
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It was not an easy game to play offense in. Two of the most physical teams in what Barnes called “the most physical conference” postgame played just that way. Both teams played with the mindset that they would foul six times a possession because the officials can’t call all of them.
The officials called very few of them, just 32 in fact, with one of those being a technical on Uros Plavsic. Between the physicality and two veteran teams that have seen plenty of each other over recent years, emotion ran high at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“It was a lot of emotion and definitely a lot of physicality,” senior forward Josiah-Jordan James said. “We knew that was going to be the case. That is always the case when we play them. It is usually the case when we play throughout the SEC, but this one especially. They have got athletic guys, big guys who don’t back down from a challenge. I feel like we are the same way.”
At times, Barnes coached right into the style of the game, playing defense first lineups that didn’t set the Vols up for offensive success. But Tennessee’s best offensive players struggled and the defense first players that saw major minutes provided huge boosts.
Tobe Awaka didn’t budge an inch against star Auburn forward Johni Broome while Jahmai Mashack grabbed a team-high three offensive rebounds and even confidently knocked down a midrange jumper. The two combined for a modest six points and seven rebounds in 23 minutes.
In a game as low scoring as this one, every one counted and Barnes was thrilled by their performance.
“Just their effort. Their competitive spirit,” Barnes said. “They come in the game and they are flying around. Just their pursuit of the basketball and then defensively, Tobe is getting better and better on the perimeter and learning how to guard.”
Those contributions were massive for Tennessee and a major reason why they could squeak past the Tigers. Those offensive issues need to be addressed and improved upon but the Vols showed why they’re dangerous. They can win when their offense is at its worst.