Cuonzo Martin tells his team all the time to “stay ugly,” according to Tennessee junior power forward Jeronne Maymon.
The Vols (10-11, 2-4 SEC) did just that Saturday night, scoring a 64-49 victory over Auburn (12-9, 2-5) before a crowd of 19,024 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
It was the 1,500th win in the 103-year history of UT men’s basketball, and while it’s a safe bet many of those wins were more aesthetically pleasing, Martin wasn’t complaining.
After all, the alternative was suffering the 957th loss in program history and falling into last-place in the SEC standings.
“We won the game because we rebounded and defended,” Martin said unapologetically. “That’s where you hang your hat, on the defensive side of the ball.”
Kenny Gabriel topped Auburn scorers with 13 points, Varez Ward had 12 and Rob Chubb 10.
The Vols won despite shooting a season-worst 34.5 percent from the field, hitting as many shots from the free-throw line (20 of 25) as they did from the floor (20 of 58).
UT’s 53 rebounds were a season-high, and the Vols forced the Tigers into the worst shooting night by an opponent (30.4) this season, blocking a season-high eight shots along the way.
Auburn second-year coach Tony Barbee, whose team has suffered through two poorer shooting performances, said Maymon was the difference.
“We are what we are offensively, so that’s not surprising,” Barbee said. “But when you get out-rebounded by 23, when you’ve got one player for them in Maymon who has 19 rebounds by himself, and our three-man rotation in the post don’t have 19 total, it’s going to be hard to win.”
The Vols led by as many as 20 points on a Maymon free throw with 1:07 left that made it 64-44.
“When a team’s in a zone, it’s harder for them to block out, so you just try to get to spots before they do,” said Maymon, who had a career-high 20 rebounds earlier this season in a 99-97 double-overtime loss to Memphis at the Maui Invitational on Nov. 22. “I was just in the right spot at the right time.”
So were UT’s defenders, particularly in the first half as the Vols took a 30-16 lead into intermission by closing the opening 20 minutes on an 18-2 run.
Auburn’s 16 first-half points was the fewest by a UT opponent this season. Tennessee held the Tigers without a field goal during the final 9:40 of the first half.
Gabriel scored on a jumper to give Auburn a 13-12 lead, and the Tigers managed only three free throws after that, missing their next 10 shots from the floor.
UT, meanwhile, started solving Auburn’s zone defense when they weren’t beating the Tigers down the floor in transition.
“It was just us settling down, reading the defense,” Martin said. “We still have to get better on the offensive side of the ball; we had open shots, we got to knock them down, we gotta get in the gym.”
Stokes, who scored nine of his 11 points and pulled down four of his six rebounds through the first half, said he felt like he took another step.
“I actually played against a lot of zone in high school, so that didn’t really bother me,” said Stokes, a mid-term freshman enrollee. “My assignment was to box out (Auburn starting center) Chubb, and I think I did a good job with that.”
The 6-foot-10 Chubb finished with five rebounds and four turnovers.
The Tigers staged a modest 6-0 run in the second half after UT turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions. Frankie Sullivan’s jumper with 7:41 left capped the run and cut the Vols’ lead to 42-33, but that was as close as Auburn would get.
Sullivan, who entered the game averaging a team-high 12.4 points, was held to five points on 2-of-12 shooting, as McBee harassed him much of the game.
Tennessee returns to action at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at No. 1-ranked Kentucky (21-1, 7-0). The Wildcats are riding a 13-game win streak and have the nation’s longest home win streak at 47, covering the tenure of coach John Calipari. Kentucky’s home win streak includes 46 in a row at Rupp Arena, and one at Memorial Gym.
The Wildcats beat the Vols 65-62 on Jan. 14 in Knoxville.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32