Without Sharife Cooper, Bruce Pearl knew there was a chance his Auburn team might not score 80 points Saturday. They didn’t need to. The Tigers stepped it up on the defensive end, played with more effort and energy, and earned a hard-fought 77-72 victory over No. 25 Tennessee.
It was Auburn’s sixth-straight win over the Volunteers in the series, and with it being the AUTLIVE game, the Tigers now 6-0 in AUTLIVE games dating back to 2016.
“Our guys just beat a team that’s got a 15 NET, a team that was picked to win our league, and did it with tremendous effort and energy,” Pearl said.
“I was so proud of our guys in their preparation. It’s been tough this season because we haven’t had as much success as we would’ve liked, and we knew how young we were. But you could see the kids just haven’t quit. And somehow, we were the more excited team to play, which is really hard to do.”
Cooper missed the game with an ankle injury, but his teammates picked him up – not only defensively but also offensively with all five Auburn starters scoring in double figures.
Sophomore Allen Flanigan scored a team-high 23 points and made two clutch free throws in the final seconds to put the game away. It was the fifth time this season Flanigan has gone over 20 points, and he’s now scored in double figures in 21 of Auburn’s 25 games. He finished 7 of 14 from the field and was tied for the team lead with seven rebounds and three assists.
“We had guys stepping up, making shots, taking on bigger roles without Sharife,” Flanigan said. “You know Sharife is great with the ball, he makes plays for others as well as himself. So with him out, we knew we were going to have to step up and fill in the gaps.”
Flanigan was able to thrive in part because he moved back to his natural position on the wing as opposed to having to play point guard like he did Tuesday night against Florida.
The point guard duties fell on Jamal Johnson instead, and the junior, playing the position for the first time this season, stepped up with 14 points, three assists and most importantly, only one turnover. He scored 10 of Auburn’s final 23 points over the last eight minutes.
“That was the key to the game,” Pearl said. ‘He gets the game ball because of it. Putting him in that position let him set us up and it let Al Flanigan be Al Flanigan and be a dominant player off the ball as a scorer.
“When Jamal Johnson looks back at his career, I want him to remember this AUTLIVE game. The fact that he was able to take the ball over, in an SEC game, and play point guard, a position he hadn’t played all year long virtually, and only have one turnover? Pretty impressive.”
As a team, the Tigers only turned it over 12 times, matching their season low in SEC play.
Sophomore Devan Cambridge was second on the team with 15 points and also pulled down six rebounds. Jaylin Williams, who had a big dunk down the stretch to put Auburn ahead 68-60, finished with 13 points. The sophomore was 8 of 10 from the free throw line, and the Tigers were plus-12 with him on the floor.
Freshman JT Thor made it five in double figures with 10 points. He also led the team with three blocks and added five rebounds. It was Thor’s 14th game this season with 10 or more points.
All five starters connected from deep in the game’s first 13 minutes to give Auburn the early advantage. The defense was also better in the first half as the Tigers forced eight turnovers and held Tennessee to 9 of 24 shooting (38 percent). They led, 34-30, at the break.
Auburn’s effort was evident on the glass as well with a 41-34 edge in rebounding. The Tigers grabbed 16 offensive rebounds and finished with 19 second-chance points. Sophomore Babatunde Akingbola matched Flanigan with a team-high seven rebounds in just eight minutes of action.
“Stretch gave us great effort and energy coming off the bench,” Pearl said. “Dylan Cardwell played well when he was out there also. Even though their numbers don’t say it, those guys gave us effective minutes in there.”