Tennessee's Wayne Chism (4) battles for a loose ball with Auburn's Korvotney Barber (1) during their NCAA college basketball game at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum in Auburn, Ala., Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009. Auburn won 78-77. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
AUBURN, Ala. — A few tough bounces and a few tough calls punctuated Tennessee’s stunning 78-77 basketball loss at struggling Auburn on Saturday.
But the real story was that one of the Southeastern Conference’s smallest, thinnest rosters punished the Volunteers on the backboards. And that ended UT’s momentum back near the top of the SEC standings.
“This is our most disappointing loss,” Vols coach Bruce Pearl said. “That’s not at all a criticism of Auburn. They played very well. I like their team ... but if you look at our losses, pretty much everybody is a guaranteed NCAA tournament team. Auburn, right now, is not a guaranteed NCAA tournament team. And we were in really good position to win the game.”
Korvotney Barber’s layup with less than five seconds left capped the Tigers’ late surge, but Barber’s undersized teammates put him in position for the final punch. Auburn, with only one starter taller than 6-foot-5, outrebounded the taller Vols by a 34-21 margin.
The Tigers (14-9, 3-5) had 14 offensive rebounds, just three fewer than UT (14-8, 5-3) pulled down defensively.
“We got outrebounded by 50, I think,” Vols junior forward Wayne Chism said. “That was crazy.”
Auburn’s Lucas Hargrove missed two free throws with 16 seconds left to keep UT in front, but 6-5 Rasheem Barrett grabbed the offensive rebound that bounced off the 6-9 Chism’s head.
“Long shots lead to long rebounds, and that’s all they shot,” Chism said. “But long rebounds, short rebounds, you’ve just got to go get it. You’ve got to defend your basket.”
Tigers coach Jeff Lebo asked for time out moments later, and he got the call despite objections from the Vols’ bench that Barrett traveled and was tied up in those few seconds, with the possession arrow favoring UT.
Auburn kept possession after another controversial call following a timeout. Officials ruled that Tennessee’s J.P. Prince knocked the inbounds pass out of bounds, but Prince claimed he never touched the ball.
Regardless, Prince claimed, the Auburn player had both feet off the court while touching it after the deflection.
Chism got a hand on Auburn’s ensuing inbounds pass but crashed to the floor after failing to corral the ball. He couldn’t recover in time to keep Barber — his man-to-man assignment — from scoring.
“They got some calls at the end ... but you get those at home,” Prince said. “You can’t blame it on the refs. In the end, it was on us. We had three chances to get one stop, and we didn’t do it. We don’t deserve victory.”
Auburn scored on 10 of its first 13 possessions and didn’t trail until UT freshman guard Scotty Hopson’s fourth and final 3-pointer rattled through the rim early in the second half. The Vols pulled ahead by six and had a 75-71 advantage in the final two minutes, but a DeWayne Reed jumper and a Tay Waller 3-pointer pushed Auburn back in front with 1:10 left.
Tyler Smith bulled inside with 38 seconds left for a layup to give UT its last lead, but the Vols couldn’t keep Auburn off the boards.
Pearl called rebounding “the one way (Auburn) could have beaten us. They missed a shot, and they followed their shot. They’d chase it down, and then we had to sit back and play more defense.
“When we shoot 59 percent and have 18 assists and 11 turnovers, we should win that game.”
The Vols shot 7-for-12 on 3-pointers in the first half and were 14-for-24 from the field in the second half.
“Usually when that happens, you get a loss,” Lebo said.
Florida coach Billy Donovan said last week that UT was a “top four team in the country” when it shoots well from the perimeter.
But few things in basketball outweigh a rebounding margin like Saturday’s.
“We knew that Tennessee would throw a punch; they are a great team,” said Barrett, who scored 27 points. “We just persevered through it. It showed a lot of maturity.”
Prince said UT’s leaders should have mustered one more counterpunch.
“That loss is on us — the veterans, the older guys,” Prince said. “We didn’t lead when it was time to at the end of the game. We couldn’t make the plays.”