By Jimmy Hyams
Blowing a late lead against South Carolina was a gut punch.
Blowing a 17-point second-half lead at Auburn was a death knell.
Any hopes the Vols had of a fast finish dissipated under a barrage of middle-school turnovers and mistakes as Auburn rallied from a monumental deficit with 14:30 left in the game to torment Tennessee 73-66 Saturday afternoon.
It was one of UT’s most heart-breaking regular-season losses in the Rick Barnes Era.
Auburn recorded 18 steals and turned 24 UT turnovers into 27 points as Bruce Pearl sparked his team to a second 17-point second-half comeback this season and kept the Tigers unbeaten at home at 15-0.
Tennessee’s second-half collapse was alarming and came in a variety of ways: A 10-second violation, a silly backcourt foul, teammates bumping into each other at midcourt, bad passes, balls stolen, missed chip shots, fouling a 3-point shooter.
Tennessee led 54-37 with less than 15 minutes to play – a lead built without much help from leading scorer John Fulkerson, who played just three first-half minutes due to foul trouble.
The Vols were on the verge of their biggest win of the season, a road upset over the No. 12 team in the country, a victory over a former Tennessee coach.
But then all heck broke loose.
Tennessee had scoring droughts of seven and four minutes while Auburn, which shot poorly from 3-point range for much of the game, nailed 5 of its last 7 treys.
Barnes said after his team almost blew a late 12-point lead against Vanderbilt that his players must play smarter and with a better basketball IQ.
They didn’t against Auburn.
Tennessee is now 15-12, 7-7 in the SEC. With an NCAA NET of 64 entering the game, UT’s only chance of an NCAA bid is to win the SEC Tournament.
After all, UT has to face Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, then Auburn again.
What are the chances UT wins all four? Or even two or three?
“Yea, no doubt,’’ UT’s Jordan Bowden said of blowing the Auburn game. “We let this one slip away with turnovers.’’
Bowden had his best game of the season: 28 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field and 7-for-7 at the foul line, six assists, four rebounds.
“When we’re executing on both ends of the floor,’’ Bowden said, “we’re a tough team. But when we get sloppy, it’s tough to win.’’
Tennessee did so many things well. It shot 54% for the first 25 minutes, won the battle of the boards 37-28 and hit 16 of 17 free throws.
But UT couldn’t overcome a plethora of mistakes.
“For 27 minutes,’’ Barnes said, “we looked like a team that could play with anybody. Then we splintered.’’
Barnes pointed to “silly turnovers. No excuse for them. We’ve harped on it and harped on it and harped on it. Is it frustrating? It is frustrating.’’
Just as frustrating was point guard Santiago Vescovi picking up a silly fourth foul in the backcourt. When he went to the bench, Auburn went on an 18-0 run.
Vescovi’s foul was about as big as any turnover UT had.
And the deflating defeat to Auburn was UT’s biggest loss this season.
It would take a near miracle for UT to get an NCAA bid – just like it took a near miracle for Auburn to rally from 17 down in the second half.
Give UT an assist for Auburn’s comeback.
And assist that will haunt their postseason hopes.