AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn rolled Toomer’s Corner after beating Tennessee in its previous trip to The Plains two seasons ago.
The Tigers simply rolled the Vols j- and Toomer's Coorner - again Saturday.
“We battled,’’ UT junior center Wayne Chism said, “but they came up with the win because they were more physical.’’
Auburn’s Korvotney Barber hit an uncontested layup with 4.3 seconds left, and J.P. Prince missed a leaner at the buzzer as the Tigers (14-9, 3-5 SEC) beat the Vols 78-77 before a crowd of 6,321 fans at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.
“This is our most disappointing loss,’’ said UT coach Bruce Pearl, whose team drops to 14-8 and 5-3. “Every other loss we have is to guaranteed NCAA tournament teams. Auburn, right now, isn’t a guaranteed NCAA team.
“We were really in good position to win the game. I don’t know the statistics, but we don’t lose when we have a lead.’’
The Vols were 84-7 the past 3½ seasons when leading or tied with five minutes left in a game (they led Auburn 71-67 at the five-minute mark), and entered the action 13-0 this season when out-shooting their opponents, as they did Saturday (59.2 percent to the Tigers’ 53.7 percent).
The trends didn’t end until Prince’s shot clanked off the rim at the buzzer.
“I thought it was going in,’’ Prince said. “It felt good coming off my hand.’’
Barber’s game-winner was considerably easier from point-blank range. Barber found himself wide open after an airborne Wayne Chism narrowly missed stealing an inbounds pass at midcourt with 10.4 seconds left. Chism had the ball in his hands, but it came loose. Tay Waller came up with the ball for the Tigers and found Barber open under the basket as Chism scrambled to get back in position.
“I felt like I had it,’’ Chism said, “but I couldn’t get my legs back under me.’’
That was the story of the day for the Vols, who got out-rebounded 34-21 and were outscored 19-2 on second-chance points.
It was just as Pearl said he feared it could be.
“I thought one of the ways Auburn could win the game was out-rebounding us,’’ Pearl said. “They played hard, they are very athletic, and they beat us to a lot of 50-50 balls. We showed our team tape of them beating people to 50-50 balls repeatedly.’’
Now, Pearl has more tape of the Tigers’ out-scrapping an SEC opponent.
“We got a big victory over the top team in the SEC, I think,’’ said Barber, who shot 8-for-8 from the floor and scored 21 points.
“If we were gonna lose,’’ said Rasheem Barrett, who led Auburn with 27 points, “we were gonna lose going down without a fight.’’
Tyler Smith led the Vols with 21 points, Prince had 18 and Scotty Hopson scored 14.
“It shouldn’t have been that close at the end,’’ UT point guard Josh Tabb said. “Auburn hit some big shots, and we couldn’t get our hands on the loose balls. We’ve got to get tougher on the 50-50 balls.’’
A Smith basket with 38.7 seconds left gave the Vols a 77-76 lead, setting the stage for the frantic finish.
Auburn’s Lucas Hargrove drove and drew a foul on Cameron Tatum with 16 seconds left.
Hargove missed both free throws, the second hitting the front of the rim and coming off at an awkward angle.
“That ball came off and hit me right on the head,’’ Chism said. “I thought it was coming off long.’’
Barrett beat Smith to the loose ball, and Tigers’ coach Jeff Lebo called timeout.
Moments later, Prince had Auburn’s Frankie Sullivan trapped against the sidecourt and appeared to hit the ball off of him and out of bounds. The Tigers, however, retained possession under the basket, setting up the pivotal inbounds play that led to Barber’s game-winning basket.
Auburn led 43-41 at the half, even though the Vols hit 60 percent of their shots (15-of-25), including 58.3 percent (7-of-12) beyond the 3-point arc. UT’s defense was at times passive, as the Vols forced only two first-half turnovers on the smaller, quicker Tigers.
UT returns to action at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Thompson-Boling Arena against Georgia.