Senior Night at Auburn was shaping up really well for Frankie Sullivan. With him scorching Tennessee for 15 points in the first eight minutes of the second half, the homestanding Tigers held a 60-59 lead with 9:31 left.
Vol head man Cuonzo Martin sensed the game slipping away. So, despite three fouls, defensive specialist Josh Richardson was rushed back into the lineup with instructions to find a way to stop Sullivan.
"When Josh went (to the bench), Frankie got his head up and started making plays — attacking the rim, shooting the 3-ball," Martin said on his post-game show. "He did a really good job against us. Josh had three fouls but we had to roll with him in the second half. I knew his presence would bother Frankie."
Apparently so. With the 6-foot-6 Richardson putting the clamps on the 6-foot-1 Sullivan, Tennessee limited Auburn to one basket over the next five minutes — a drive by Sullivan — outscored the Tigers 14-2 during that stretch and went on to prevail 82-75.
Sullivan finished with a game-high 24 points but scored only two of those in the game's final 12 minutes.
The win, Tennessee's seventh in the last eight games, improves the Vols' record to 18-11 overall and 10-6 in SEC play, while preserving their hopes of earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers, losers of eight games in a row and 14 of their past 15, slip to 9-21 overall and 3-14 in conference play.
Trae Golden and Jordan McRae scored 21 points each to lead the Vols offensively. Golden also contributed 6 assists and committed just 1 turnover in 36 minutes at the point, despite a quick tempo.
"We felt like we had great opportunities to score against these guys in transition —
to push the ball, to push the pace, allow our shooters to spot up," Martin said. "Trae Golden did a great job of attacking the rim and making plays. We felt like that was an advantage for us. We don't want to have to set up our offense all the time, allow a team to get in a rhythm, get us into a zone offense and get us off-kilter."
McRae went just 5 of 16 from the field but drained 9 of 11 foul shots and combined with Golden to give Tennessee some easy buckets in transition.
"I thought those guys did a good job, especially on the offensive side of the ball," Martin said. "They kept getting us going in the second half — attacking the rim, making plays, finding shooters, getting to the free-throw line and taking it upon themselves to find a way to get us the win."
Tennessee shot a respectable 42.9 percent (24 of 56) from the field, 35.0 percent (7 of 20) from 3 and 71.1 percent (27 of 38) from the foul line. Discounting Jarnell Stokes' 1-of-10 effort from the free-throw stripe, the rest of the Vols were an amazing 26 of 28.
Stokes posted his 13th double-double of the season — 11 points, 12 rebounds — but watched most of the final 10 minutes as backup Kenny Hall finished the game. Hall went 3 for 3 from the field (all dunks), closing the evening with 8 points and 5 rebounds.
"I just felt like late in the game Kenny Hall gave us a better chance," Martin said. "Kenny played well on both ends of the floor."
The Vol defense took most of the night off, enabling an offensively challenged Auburn team to shoot 50.9 percent (28 of 55) from the field, 34.6 percent (9 of 26) from 3 and 83.3 percent (10 of 12) from the foul line. The Tigers committed 16 turnovers, however, including some critical ones down the stretch.
Tennessee hit its first three 3-point tries and led 14-5 with the game barely five minutes old. The Vols were up by seven (22-15) midway through the half, then dozed off. A 3-pointer and a drive by Sullivan sparked a 12-4 rally that gave the Tigers their first lead of the game at 27-26.
"Things came a little easy early in the first half, then we started rushing shots," Martin said. "We didn't have a flow to us, missed some free throws. Those guys (Tigers) got their heads up, and it became a ball game."
Sullivan scored seven of Auburn's first nine points of the second half, bumping a 35-32 intermission lead to 44-38 with 16:47 remaining. Tennessee's NCAA Tournament hopes at this point were flickering but an 8-0 spurt revived them. Golden opened the mini-run with a three-point play and two free throws, then McRae added a three-point play that put the Vols on top 46-44.
The game was nip-and-tuck until Rob Chubb's seven-foot hook shot gave Auburn a 60-59 lead with 9:31 remaining. That's when Tennessee finally took control of the game, thanks to its five-minute explosion.
Skylar McBee opened the rally with a 3-pointer and Golden added a breakaway as the Vols surged ahead 64-60. After a drive by Sullivan, Tennessee scored the next nine points. McRae hit a pair of free throws, then assisted Hall for a dunk. Hall added two free throws, then McRae closed the 14-2 outburst with a 3-pointer that gave Tennessee a 73-62 lead with 4:48 to play.
The Vols sank nine of 10 foul shots down the stretch to seal the deal.
"I thought we did a really good job in the second half of settling down, having a better pace to our game, moving the ball on offense, attacking the rim and not settling for 3-point shots," Martin said.
Tennessee closes the regular season with a 4 o'clock Saturday tipoff against Missouri at Thompson-Boling Arena.