Maintaining its home-court perfection and regaining its comeback magic, No. 13 Auburn beat Tennessee 73-66 Saturday at Auburn Arena.
“We needed that one,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “I got after my team at halftime. I was very upset with our lack of effort and energy, our toughness. I lit into them. We got after Tennessee and we turned them over, which created some transition. We got it turned around in the second half.”
Devan Cambridge’s corner 3-pointer with 1:38 to play broke a 64-64 tie, giving Auburn a lead it would not relinquish. The Tigers are 15-0 at home this season and have won 18 straight at Auburn Arena.
A Tennessee layup cut Auburn’s lead to 67-66 at the 1:14 mark, but the Tigers ended the game on a 6-0 run that featured Danjel Purifoy’s steal, Auburn’s 18th of the game. Auburn forced 24 turnovers leading to a 27-15 advantage in points off turnovers.
“You turn a team over 24 times, you have 18 steals, it tells you the kind of fight and the kind of character you have,” Pearl said.
Trailing by 17 at the 14:31 mark of the second half, Auburn used an 18-0 run to regain the lead. Anfernee McLemore’s putback trimmed the deficit to 10, energizing the sold-out crowd. McLemore scored seven points, grabbed five rebounds, blocked two shots and was plus-20 in 18 minutes.
“I thought Anfernee McLemore defensively picked us up with tremendous effort and energy, and scored some big baskets,” Pearl said. “When we played smaller and faster and quicker, that’s when we played better.”
Samir Doughty followed with a 3-pointer and a pair of drives on Tennessee’s Jordan Bowden to pull the Tigers within two points at 54-52. Doughty led Auburn with 22 points in the Tigers’ third straight game without freshman Isaac Okoro, who injured a hamstring on Feb. 12 vs. Alabama.
“I was just being aggressive,” Doughty said. “We are without one of our better players right now. We know that. He’s a guy we go to for mismatches and drives in the lane, so I knew I had to step up at that moment.”
Another Cambridge corner 3-pointer culminated the run, putting Auburn ahead 55-54. Bowden, who scored a game-high 28, put the Vols ahead 60-57 with a backdoor cut and dunk.
A pair of J’Von McCormick buckets and three free throws from Purifoy gave Auburn a 64-60 lead before the Vols rallied to tie. McCormick scored eight points, adding four assists and five steals.
“The way Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick stepped up and played on both ends of the floor made the difference,” Pearl said. “We’ll celebrate this one, having lost two in a row. I kind of felt like our backs were against the wall a little bit. Down 17, adversity reveals character.”
Freshman Jaylin Williams scored eight points, including a self-serve alley-oop in which he passed to himself off the backboard and slammed Auburn’s first basket of the second half.
“In high school, I did it three times,” Williams said. “That was something that came naturally. I just threw it off the backboard and went and got it.”
Cambridge and Austin Wiley each scored nine for Auburn. Wiley led the Tigers with seven rebounds.
Auburn forced 11 first-half turnovers but trailed 41-33 at halftime. Bowden scored 17 in the first half for UT, shooting 5-for-5 from the field, including a pair of 3-pointers, and 5-for-5 from the free-throw line.
Allen Flanigan’s steal and layup capped a 6-0 run that gave Auburn a 22-21 lead at the 7:17 mark.