Observations: Auburn 79, Tennessee 70
In a game that they absolutely needed, Bruce Pearl's Tigers finally finished well against a quality opponent for a huge win.
PG Wendell Green Jr. (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
When Santiago Vescovi pulled up and buried a midrange jumper with 6:13 left Saturday afternoon, it would have been only natural for Auburn fans to worry.
Vescovi had just hit Tennessee’s sixth straight made field goal, giving the Volunteers a 3-point lead and an 11-4 run in crunch time.
Far too many times in SEC play, Auburn had fallen apart — particularly defensively — in the final 10 minutes of games. It gave up 23 points in the “fourth quarter” at Georgia. The number was 28 at Texas A&M, then 25 against Alabama at home, then 20 at Vanderbilt, then 26 earlier in the week at Alabama.
More than half of its SEC losses were quite winnable late, but Auburn couldn’t come up with enough stops. And it started to look like Tennessee, even without star point guard Zakai Zeigler, was going to do it one more time.
Then, after a putback from Johni Broome, the Tigers got a stop. Zep Jasper checked in at the next dead ball, and the Tigers got another stop. Jaylin Williams hit his trademark leaner to give Auburn the lead, and the Tigers got yet another stop.
After the last media timeout, Auburn continued to get stops. Tennessee missed all of its last seven shots from the field and turned it over twice.
“I ain't even notice they were missing like that,” Williams said. “But it's like (assistant coach Wes Flanigan) always tells us: Stick together and stay connected. We were just flying around as a team, all around.
“We didn't care about the matchups. We were just trying to guard everybody.”
Auburn did just that, closing out Senior Day and the regular season with a 79-70 win over the No. 3 team in the NET rankings.
The entirety of the Vols’ late-game scoring came from the free-throw line, and the Tigers outscored them 19-7 over the final six minutes of the victory.
“We finally guarded at the end of the game,” Bruce Pearl said.
As Pearl says all the time, defense and rebounding wins you games — especially in March. And the Tigers, who were being out-rebounded 9-1 at one point in the second half, doubled up the Volunteers on the glass (14-7) to pull out the victory.
A lot will, and should, be made about Auburn’s red-hot offense in the second half against the nation’s best defense.
But make no mistake about it: The Tigers finally closed out a signature win against a high-quality opponent Saturday — potentially punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament — because of what they did when they didn’t have the ball in their hands.
“We've been losing,” said Wendell Green Jr., who had the bounceback game of all bounceback games in the win. “We just lost to Kentucky and Alabama, so we knew we had to get a win. We see all the Bracketology stuff. It's normal to see all that. So we knew we had to get a win against a Quad 1 team.
“We want to get hot and just go on a run. We need some momentum going into the tournament, and this is the perfect game for that.”
Here are four Observations from Auburn’s 79-70 win over Tennessee, along with the Rotation Charts, Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Day.
SG Zep Jasper (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
Small guards, big-time defense
Auburn’s guards have gotten a lot of outside criticism this season. The Tigers have struggled in the backcourt matchup in several of their notable losses, and the injury-induced redshirt situation for true freshman Chance Westry hasn’t helped, either.
Without the 5-foot-9 Zeigler, who tore his ACL earlier this week, Tennessee was always going to go with a bigger lineup Saturday. The 6-foot-3 Vescovi started at point guard and was 8-11 from the field and 5-7 from deep at one point. The 6-foot-2 Tyreke Key played more minutes for the Vols, along with the 6-foot-4 Jahmai Meshack.
All of those backcourt players had clear height advantages over Auburn, and Tennessee went even taller at times by using the 6-foot-6 Josiah-Jordan James and the 6-foot-8 Julian Phillips — both former 5-star recruits — in lineups with multiple post players. That meant that someone smaller for Auburn was going to have to guard someone much, much bigger for Tennessee most of the time.
When the 6-foot-1 Jasper checked into the game with a little more than five minutes left, Vescovi didn’t score again. In his final home game at Auburn, the “Honey Badger” fouled out and only scored two points, but he tied for the team lead in plus/minus at +16.
That reflects just how incredible he was on defense. And Jasper played 24 minutes, which was the most he’s had in a single game since a December loss at USC.
“Zep stayed in there and did an unbelievable job on Vescovi,” Pearl said. “… We held them without a field goal for the last six minutes, that's why we won the game.”
Meanwhile, with Allen Flanigan tasked with slowing down James — who didn’t score in the final 17:12 of regulation — Auburn decided to put the 5-foot-11 Green on the 6-foot-8 Phillips. He didn’t take a single shot in the final 10 minutes of the game and only hit a couple of inconsequential free throws late.
“I think it was the combination of having Zep out there and putting him on Vescovi, and then the confidence in Wendell Green to not get physically mismatched against Julian Phillips,” Pearl said. He fronted him. Had a turnover. He’s giving up almost a foot.
“But that’s a decision that we made because we knew Wendell would do what he had to do, and I wanted Zep on Vescovi — our best perimeter defender.”
Auburn played outstanding team defense in the final minutes, communicating against all of Tennessee’s lengthy half-court actions and making a big-time turnaround on the glass.
Yet the single-biggest difference in the elite defensive finish came from what Auburn did with the two smallest players on the floor.
PG Wendell Green Jr. (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
Wendell Green Jr. returned to his bag at the perfect time
Heading into Saturday’s game, Green had shot just 25% from the floor over the last five contests. He missed a string of late-game shots in the loss against Alabama, including a potential game-winner on a good look from mid-range.
But Auburn wasn’t going to lose any faith in its floor general. He had the ball in his hands a ton against Tennessee and delivered, scoring 24 points (tying a season- and Auburn-high) on 8-14 from the field, 2-4 from deep and 6-6 from the free-throw line. He also had four assists and just two turnovers in a game in which the Tigers had only six giveaways for the entire contest.
“I told him to be aggressive and don't necessarily change,” Pearl said. “At the same time, Wendell understands what I'm talking about what affects winning: attitude, effort, energy and doing it on both ends of the floor. So I'm glad that he was able to recover and play as well as he did.”