By Jimmy Hyams
Turnabout is fair play – except someone forgot to tell Auburn.
Auburn rallied from a 17-point deficit at home to beat Tennessee 73-66 two weeks ago.
Tennessee rallied from a 17-point deficit at home Saturday to cut Auburn’s lead to five points. But the Tigers refused to fold.
Point guard J’Von McCormick had seven points and a steal to jack the lead back to 72-57.
Tennessee never threatened after that, losing on Senior Day 85-63 – the worst home defeat since losing 83-60 to Ole Miss five years ago.
Bruce Pearl has now beaten Tennessee five in a row – a record for Auburn. Two were by at least 20 points.
Samir Doughty torched Tennessee for 32 points (he hit 8 of 13 treys) and Auburn outrebounded UT 42-26.
“That’s as good as we can play,’’ said Pearl, the former Tennessee coach. “Our offense controlled the game. We got open looks. And Samir Doughty showed why he should be first-team all-conference.’’
Pearl said his team’s performance reminded him of last year’s Final Four team.
“We haven’t played like that this year,’’ Pearl said.
Pearl said one reason he’s had success against Tennessee is the way the Tigers defend UT in the post – they front, rather than play behind UT’s big man.
Pearl also said Chuma Okeke outplayed the Vols’ two-time player of the year Grant Williams twice last year.
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes wasn’t pleased with his team, but gave credit to the visitors.
“I thought it was the best we’ve seen them play all year,’’ Barnes said. “They played like a team playing for the No. 2 seed (in the SEC Tournament).’’
Barnes’ team – after big wins against Florida and Kentucky – played like a team destined for the NIT.
Barnes was bothered by the way his team practiced on Thursday – two days after a near miraculous rally from a 17-point deficit to win at Kentucky.
He said players didn’t have focus and those without focus played like it Saturday.
“We know what goes into winning and losing,’’ Barnes said, “and preparation is a key.’’
Barnes was impressed with Doughty.
“He plays with poise, confidence and swagger,’’ Barnes said. “He’s a terrific player. He’s given us as hard a time as anyone in the league.’’
Doughty was frequently open for 3s against UT’s defense.
“Strictly breakdowns from the scouting report,’’ Barnes said.
Auburn, coming off a hard-to-explain home loss to Texas A&M, was sharp from the get go. The Tigers, averaging 7.9 treys per game, hit 14 of 32 from beyond the arc against UT and seized a 42-28 lead late in the first half.
Each time the Vols made a run, Auburn had an answer, whether it was a Doughty 3 or a McCormick basket, or a key rebound and putback, or a steal.
Auburn, which lost its three best players off last year’s team, is 25-6, 12-6 in the SEC, thanks to a terrific coaching job by Pearl and the emergence of Doughty, McCormick and freshman Issac Okoro.
Pearl wasn’t sure what he could get out of McCormick, who averaged 4.1 points and 12 minutes per game last year. But since McCormick did everything right on and off the court last year, Pearl went with the second-year junior college transfer.
“I felt like he earned the keys to the car,’’ Pearl said, “so I didn’t recruit over him.’’
Pearl has clearly had Tennessee’s number. Not only has he won five in a row over the Vols, the Tigers have outscored UT by a staggering 46 points in the last 54 minutes, 30 seconds of game action: 22 on Saturday, 24 in the last 14:30 of the game at Auburn.
Meanwhile, Tennessee (17-14, 9-9 SEC) must regroup.
The Vols have shown flashes of being outstanding, and flashes of being below average.
Tennessee’s only path to the NCAA Tournament is to win the SEC tourney – UT has reached the finals each of the last two years.
Would Barnes accept a bid to the NIT?
“No doubt,’’ he said. “This team needs to play as much as it possibly can.’’
Tennessee will be a No. 8 seed and play Thursday at 1 pm (ET) in Nashville.