AUBURN, Ala. — A win is a win.
Especially at this time of the season.
Especially for a team playing for its NCAA tournament life.
It was neither easy nor a sure thing for most of the night at Auburn Arena on Wednesday night, but Tennessee did what it had to do.
The Vols overcome a poor first half and a six-point deficit early in the second half and avoided a disastrous loss with a late 14-4 run in a 82-75 road win against the Tigers.
"Those guys knew what was at stake for our team," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "When you're trying to get in the postseason and the NCAA tournament, there's things we've got to do to win this game, and the guys know we didn't play at a level we were capable of playing. They understood more than anything what was at stake if we lost this game."
For 30-plus minutes, a loss looked like a possibility. Behind the driving of Josh Wallace and Frankie Sullivan, seniors playing their final home games, the plucky Tigers made the game a fight. A team that had scored 56 points or less in its last five games hung 35 on Tennessee in the first half by driving to the basket at will.
After Sullivan, the Tigers' leading scorer who cracked the top 10 of the program's career scoring list earlier this season, hit two jumpers and two free throws early in the second half, Auburn led 44-38.
"We were telling each other we had to turn up our energy and match theirs," Vols guard Jordan McRae said. "At halftime we were just saying, 'We've got to go now.' We couldn't wait to the last five minutes to try to make a push, and we tried to go as soon as we would.
"We knew what we had to do."
The Vols (18-11, 10-7 SEC) entered play on Wednesday as the final team in the 68-team NCAA tournament field according to projections by ESPN and CBS, and a loss to Auburn, which had lost 13 of 14 games after a 2-0 SEC start and began the week as the SEC's lowest-rated team in the Ratings Percentage Index, surely would have been fatal to Tennessee's push for at-large bid.
McRae and Trae Golden assured the Vols they would fight another day.
"That's what they're supposed to do," Martin said. "That's their job. Everything else just fell in line."
Golden scored nine of Tennessee's first 11 points out of halftime and scored 16 of his 21 points in the second half.
"We knew this was a must-win," Golden said, "and we just wanted to make sure we came out with a lot of energy. I felt like I had an advantage on Wallace. He's a smaller point guard, so I was just trying to get to the rim and create plays for myself and my teammates."
McRae, the Vols' leading scorer and an SEC player of the year candidate, delivered the dagger, a 3-pointer from the top of the key after a series of shoulder fakes and crossover dribbles that capped the game's decisive run and gave the visitors a 73-64 lead with less than five minutes remaining.
Golden, the memory of missing the NCAA tournament last season in the back of his mind, implored his teammates with his play and his voice.
"We can't afford any type of loss," he said. "I just kept telling them that, that we've been here and we've got to push through this. I just remember everybody last year when we didn't get picked for the NCAA tournament, we all watched it, and it was a sad moment.
"We told ourselves we ain't going to be back [there]."
Tennessee adjusted its defense and held Sullivan, who scored 17 of his 24 points in the first 13 minutes of the second half, scoreless the game's final seven minutes.
"This is a good win," said Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes.
In the Vols' predicament, any win qualifies.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...