KNOXVILLE – It might not have been the convincing bounce-back performance that UT was looking for after dropping Saturday’s game against Texas A&M, but the Vols found a way back into the win column against Auburn on Wednesday night.
Like Saturday’s loss to the Aggies, Wednesday’s win over the Tigers (8-6, 0-3 SEC) had some nervous moments – especially in the second half.
Though it turned out to be a wire-to-wire win for Tennessee, Auburn never went away completely. The Tigers kept the score within a dozen for the entire contest and crept within a couple of possessions on multiple occasions in the second half.
But performances from Tennessee’s usual stars – Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes – and a less-likely star, guard Josh Richardson, were enough to hold off the Tigers by a final of 78-67 in front of approximately 14,000 fans at Thompson-Boling Arena.
It wasn’t exactly a signature win for the Vols. Coach Cuonzo Martin admitted that the players had been somewhat lethargic in practice after the emotional loss over the weekend.
“As a staff we thought it would be a really tough thing,” Martin said of the challenge of bouncing back. “Let's just get out and play. As long as those days linger on, it gets tougher and tougher. Even in practice, we were there but the energy and the emotion was not at the level it normally is.
“To their defense, I can understand. I felt the same way. You have to muster up the energy to bounce back and get ready to go. But this was to get over the hump and back on your grind.”
And the Vols did find a way to get over the hump. Auburn was very much in it with around five minutes remaining, when UT made a few key plays to finish off a team that had lost its previous two SEC games to Missouri and Ole Miss – NCAA tournament teams last year – by a combined total of just five points.
That’s when Stokes, who did most of his damage scoring and rebounding (14 points, 14 rebounds), threw a perfect pass to fellow forward Jeronne Maymon with 4:53 remaining and the Vols hanging on to a 63-58 advantage.
Maymon, who was fouled on the play, converted the bucket and the free throw, giving UT a 66-58 advantage. Auburn never got closer than five points from that point on. UT, which missed two key free throws against A&M late in the second half, was steady at the line down the stretch.
The Vols (11-5, 2-1) hit 12 of their final 14 free-throw attempts to help seal the win.
"It's always important to hit your free throws," said Richardson, who finished with 15 points on 7 of 11 shooting. "The games in the SEC are always going to be closer, so we have to make them."
All five of Tennessee’s starters finished the evening with 10-plus points. McRae, the team’s leading scorer on the season, had just seven points in the first half. His slow second half against the Aggies hurt UT in that game, but he helped UT close this one out, scoring 14 in the second half and regularly helping the Vols respond to the series of miniature rallies by the Tigers.
“Didn't think he had good composure in the first half,” Martin said of McRae. “Just telling him to calm down and relax. Just let the game come to him and be aggressive and get opportunities to score. I thought he settled down in the second half.”
The Vols did enough on defense to preserve the win. Auburn shot a respectable 41 percent from the field, but Tennessee held a 34-22 edge in defensive rebounds and though Auburn stars KT Harrell and Chris Denson, two of the league’s top scorers, combined for 39 points, the Vols didn’t let anybody else step up and beat them.
“Those guys are legitimate scorers,” Martin said of Harrell and Denson. “We try to do our best job corralling them but they still make plays, so give them credit. But it was a good win for our guys."
• Freshman swingman A.J. Davis didn’t play for the first time this season. Martin said he was “50/50” coming into the night with an ankle injury.
• Also on the injury front, Martin said Stokes has been battling a sore shoulder: “I think his shoulder was better. To his defense, he’s not a guy that is going to complain about it. His shoulder – it’s a legitimate issue. I thought it was better tonight with rehab, ice. He was able to be more aggressive. I think that was the case.”
• Maymon, who finished the games with 11 points and eight rebounds, fouled out at the 2:43 mark of the second half.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga