The first assist in Wednesday night’s Tennessee-Auburn game didn’t occur on the court. It came from the stands behind Tennessee’s goal.
The Tigers opened in a triangle-and-two zone defense, leaving Josh Richardson open in the right corner. Twice he got the ball in position to shoot only to pass it back outside. The third time a Vol fan bellowed, “Take it! Take the shot!”
Richardson took the advice, took the shot and swished it for a 3-0 lead the Big Orange never relinquished en route to a 78-67 victory. Asked afterward if he heard the fan yelling at him, Richardson smiled sheepishly.
“I did hear it,” he said. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m open, so …’”
When asked if the fan’s directive influenced his decision to take the shot, Richardson smiled and shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I was just being too unselfish, I guess, at the beginning.”
Buoyed by draining that first shot, Richardson hit 6 of 8 attempts en route to 13 first-half points as the Vols went to the break with a 33-28 lead.
“They were just leaving me open,” he said, “so it was easy shots.”
As often happens when Richardson hits a few shots early, the opposing defense couldn’t focus on clogging the lane. As a result, all five Tennessee starters scored in double figures. Jordan McRae led with 21 points, followed by Richardson with 15, Jarnell Stokes with 14 (plus 14 rebounds), Antonio Barton and Jeronne Maymon with 11 each.
“If they’re going to try a triangle-and-two Coach (Cuonzo Martin) was telling Josh to shoot every time … to make them pay,” McRae said. “Josh has been shooting the 3 well all season.”
Tennessee, now 11-5 overall and 2-1 in SEC play, would love to have that kind of balance every night.
“It’s definitely nice,” Richardson said. “It shows how much balance we have, how many weapons we have out on the court. People can’t really double on anybody or help too deep (on the post) because we’re going to make ‘em pay for it every time.”
The Vols’ balance made Auburn pay Wednesday night as they shot 51 percent (26 of 51) from the field and piled up 45 second-half points.
“Oh, we’re tough for anybody to beat when everybody’s clicking,” Richardson said.
No one was clicking like Auburn’s Chris Denson, who was virtually unstoppable on this night. The 6-foot-2 guard got to the rim seemingly at will, making 10 of 18 shots (mostly layups) en route to a game-high 24 points. Fellow guard K.T. Harrell added 15 in the backcourt-oriented attack for the Tigers, now 8-6 overall and 0-3 in SEC play.
“Those are the kind of people that are hard to guard – when you know every time down court they’re coming at you,” McRae said. “You don’t get a break. We’ve got to do a better job of keying in on team’s best guys, so they won’t be able to do that.”
Tennessee’s inability to contain Denson and Harrell enabled Auburn to keep the game close until the final minutes. A 3-pointer by Tahj Shamsid-Deen to open the second half whittled the lead to two points (33-31) but Maymon scored six consecutive Vol points in a 17-8 spurt that widened the gap to 50-39 with 13:22 left. Auburn scored the next seven points, however, closing to 50-46.
McRae scored on a 3 and a coast-to-coast drive as the Vols went up 57-47 with 10:45 left. Auburn whittled the deficit to 68-63 with 2:43 to go but McRae hit five of six foul shots to help Tennessee hold on down the stretch. All told, he scored 14 of Tennessee’s final 26 points.
“I’m the kind of player at the end of the game that definitely wants the ball, especially at the free-throw line,” he said. “That’s just who I am and what my team needs me to do at the end of games.”