Tennessee might be getting hot at just the right time.
The Vols have now pieced together their first three-game conference winning streak of the season after a dominating 82-54 victory at Auburn on Wednesday night. Tennessee has combined to beat its last two opponents, Vanderbilt and Auburn, by a margin of 66 points, the largest sum in back-to-back SEC games since the 1965 season.
And while Vanderbilt and Auburn might not be considered marquee wins on a tournament resume, the Vols are winning with a style that should translate well against any opponent they may face in the coming weeks.
“It’s definitely our best basketball [of the season],” said Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes. “Auburn felt that they could pull this game out, especially on Senior Night when emotions are high. We came in and took the life out of the arena. It’s our best basketball and at the right time also.”
Auburn hit just 20 of 53 shots (37.7%) from the field, several of which came after the game was well out of reach. On the other end, shots continued to fall for the Vols from all over the court. Tennessee finished just under 50 percent on the night with all five starters finished in double-digits scoring.
Tennessee pounded the ball inside to Stokes and Jeronne Maymon and hit enough shots from the perimeter to make the Tigers pay when they crashed in on the post.
Stokes led the Vols (19-11, 10-7 SEC) with an impressive line of 20 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. In the process he became UT’s 45thmember of the 1,000-point club, accomplishing the feat despite only being a junior and missing the first part of his freshman season in 2011. Maymon added 13 points and eight rebounds.
Point guard Antonio Barton, now firmly entrenched as the starter again, had another big night with 14 points and five rebounds. He continues to snap out of his shooting slump that sent him to the bench in favor of freshman Darius Thompson earlier in 2014.
“I think what helped us is Antonio,” said UT coach Cuonzo Martin. “I think you can reach a high level of success with a good point guard. I don’t care what you have on the interior and I don’t care what you have on the wing, if you have a good point guard, you will have success. He helps us defensively, because he is the most vocal. It used to be Jeronne, but I think Antonio has really stepped up and been that guy.”
Like Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt, this contest was also never truly in doubt as the Vols took the lead wire to wire.
Utilizing a suffocating defense that mixed in a few zone looks, the Vols rolled out to a 22-4 lead at Auburn Arena in the opening 10 minutes and the Tigers (13-15, 5-12 SEC) were never able to muster much of a fight on their Senior Night.
“It was all on defense,” Stokes said. “We basically drew a line and told them to cross it. I felt it was a great defensive effort from top to bottom. We were playing against two of the top leading scorers in the SEC. … It was a great effort by the team.”
By halftime UT’s lead was up to 44-20. The Vols remained comfortably in command the rest of the evening, easily dismissing the possibility of falling into a trap game after their performance against Vandy and before a huge regular season finale against Missouri on Saturday in Knoxville.
The Vols will clinch at least the No. 4 seed and a double bye in the SEC tournament if they can knock off Missouri. A UT win coupled with a Georgia loss at LSU Saturday would propel Tennessee to the No. 3 seed. A loss could cost the Vols one of their byes in the SEC tournament and would set them up to need a strong run in Atlanta, if not an outright SEC tournament championship, to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
*Quotes came via Auburn’s sports information staff
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga