AUBURN, Ala. — Coach Cuonzo Martin has been repeating a phrase of late. The best players have to be who they are.
In short, they have to play like the best players. They have to deliver the goods.
Tennessee’s best players got the message Wednesday night. Not at the start, mind you. It took a while, but the Vols eventually moved the bottom line to where it needed to be.
As the finish line nears in the 2012-13 college basketball season, the Vols’ postseason dreams are still viable after toughing out an 82-75 win over a downtrodden but determined bunch of Auburn Tigers.
Tennessee showed little sense of urgency in the first half. That’s a surprise considering everything that’s on the table in the last week of the regular season.
Auburn, a loser of 13 of its past 14 games, led 35-32 at the break and then 46-38 after yet another Frankie Sullivan basket early in the second half.
At that juncture, the monitor on Tennessee’s fragile NCAA tournament prognosis was slowing toward a flat line.
And at that juncture, Tennessee’s best players remembered who they were.
The Vols pulled their bacon out of the fire with a 12-3 spurt that went something like this:
Trae Golden attacked the lane and converted a three-point play.
Then Golden got on the front end of a fast break, was fouled and converted both free throws.
Then Jordan McRae, for whom nothing was coming easily, took a Quentoin Chievous handoff, scored and converted the and-one.
Tennessee led 46-44. After an Auburn trey to regain the lead, Jarnell Stokes imposed himself for a dunk off a Golden feed.
Finally, McRae followed his own miss with a second-effort tip-in for a 50-47 lead.
The issue was far from settled but Tennessee was fully engaged.
McRae and Golden finished with 21 points each.
“They all did their job,’’ said Martin, “and everything else fell in line.’’
Stokes, the third wheel in Tennessee’s triumvirate, recorded his 13th double-double of the season. But he flirted with an interesting but dubious triple-double.
He finished with 11 points, 12 rebounds and — get this — nine missed free throws, going a jaw-dropping 1-of-10 at the line until Martin benched him to avoid further malpractice.
Fortunately for the Vols, it wasn’t contagious. The rest of the roster was a combined 26-of-28.
Delivering when the clock was stopped and everything was stationary wasn’t enough, though. They had to make plays when the bodies were flying.
“We had to try to find our energy,’’ McRae said. “It was Senior Night and they came out with a lot of energy. We had to match theirs.
“I don’t think I played that well, but we got the win. Trae played a great game.’’
He did indeed. Golden, coming off one of his worst games, a 78-68 loss at Georgia on Saturday, was back to being his assertive self.
He got his points and helped his teammates get theirs by dishing six assists.
“Auburn played with a lot of emotion,’’ Golden said, “but we needed this win. It was a tough game.’’
Video highlights of Tennessee vs Auburn, March 6, 2013
Tennessee played with just enough motion when it mattered.
Now, Saturday’s Senior Day game with Missouri at Thompson-Boling Arena is ripe with meaning.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere,’’ Golden said. “I can’t wait.’’
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.