AUBURN, Ala. — Trae Golden remembers the second-guessing.
He remembers watching Selection Sunday unfold last March and seeing Tennessee left by the wayside.
He remembers the questions that followed. “What if we had done this?” “What if we hadn’t done that?”
That’s why, when rubber hit the NCAA tournament bubble road last night, he stepped into the middle of the UT huddle along the Auburn Arena sideline.
“We are not,” he began, “losing this game.”
A loss to last place Auburn Wednesday night would have sent the Vols bubble hissing away over the East Alabama plains.
A win, by whatever means necessary, was merely a means to the season’s end.
“These guys knew what was at stake,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin would later say.
Remembering what it feels like to lose when the stakes are high, Tennessee shouldered past the Tigers in a never-pretty but absolutely necessary 82-75 win. The Vols (18-11, 10-7 SEC) remain alone in sixth place in the conference.
“Looking back on last year, there were so many moments when could have, should have done this,” said Golden.
He added, “We can’t afford any type of loss.”
Golden teamed with Jordan McRae to score 21 points apiece. When they came mattered most. Golden scored 16 after halftime. McRae dropped 15.
Trailing 60-59 with 9 minutes, 28 remaining, the Vols ripped off a 14-2 run to seal their leaking NCAA tournament bubble.
The run started with a 3-pointer from Skylar McBee, was highlighted by a dunk from Kenny Hall and was capped by a 3 from McRae.
“We were telling each other we had to turn up our energy to match theirs,” McRae said.
For Auburn (9-21, 3-14), it was Sullivan’s Senior Night and he played like it. The veteran of five years, two home gyms, two coaching staffs, one season-ending knee surgery and 1,525 career points, poured in a game-high 24 points.
UT tried multiple defensive matchups on Sullivan. None worked.
Auburn shot 51.0 percent from the field (28-55).
Video highlights of Tennessee vs Auburn, March 6, 2013
“Those guys (Auburn) played with emotion and Frankie Sullivan, I read in the paper that he said he didn’t want to lose this game,” Martin said.
That was obvious, but Golden, coming off a 1-for-10 shooting performance in a loss at Georgia last Saturday, made 6 of his 12 attempts to hang with Sullivan.
“That’s what good players do,” McRae said. “You have an off night and you come back and really play well and are player of the game the next night.”
UT forward Jarnell Stokes logged his 13th double-double of the season with 11 points and 12 rebounds, but struggled from the line going 1-for-10 on free throws.
“I hope to never shoot like that again,” Stokes said. “Rightfully I was on the bench at the end because mentally I wasn’t prepared to make free throws.”
The Vols opened the game making six of their first 10 shots. Fourteen of the next 19 drew iron or missed all together. The shooting woes translated to the free-throw line. UT missed 6-of-14 from the stripe, enabling Auburn to pull ahead with a 35-32 halftime lead.
The Vols led by as many as nine in the early goings, but languished along until Golden and McRae delivered in the second half.
“That’s what they’re supposed to do,” Martin said. “They more or less did their job and everything else fell in line.”
A crucial season finale now awaits. Missouri, log jammed with Ole Miss and Alabama in a three-way, third-place tie above UT in the SEC standings at 11-6 in league play, comes to Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday (TV: ESPN, 4 p.m.).
Through a variety of scenarios and tiebreakers, Tennessee can end the season anywhere from fourth to seventh in the conference. The top four teams get a double-bye in the SEC tournament while 5-10 advance directly to the quarterfinals.
It’s another must-win.
“I expect it to be Florida or Kentucky, times five,” McRae said.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.