KNOXVILLE — The outcome was precisely what Tennessee needed.
The path the Volunteers took to get there, though, was most uninspiring.
Between the turnovers and defensive lapses, Tennessee was far from excellent Wednesady night, but the Vols ultimately had too much for visiting Auburn and got past the pesky Tigers 78-67 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols turned it over 15 times and allowed a guard-dominated Auburn team to score nearly half its points in the paint, but coming off a second-half collapse and last-second loss to Texas A&M at the weekend with a trip to Kentucky looming on Saturday, Tennessee welcomed the victory.
"We'll probably see it on film, but we're not really thinking about that right now," Tennessee guard Josh Richardson said with a smile. "I'm just glad we won."
The Vols (11-5, 2-1 SEC) never trailed on Wednesday night, and all five starters finished with at least 11 points led by Jordan McRae's 21, but Auburn whittled a double-digit deficit down to four or five on multiple occasions in both halves.
Tennessee led 16-6 seven minutes into the game and 33-23 nearly 10 minutes later, but Auburn only trailed by five at the end of a first half in which Tennessee committed all but five of its turnovers.
"We're averaging, what, 16 right now?" McRae pondered aloud. "We're just being careless. Somebody's passing it, and we're not really meeting the pass and being careless with the ball. It's things that can be corrected.
"Turning it over 10 times in the first half when we're shooting 48 percent, we've got to do a better job. We're taking shots away from ourselves."
A transition layup by freshman Darius Thompson gave the Vols a 50-39 lead with more than 13 minutes on the clock, but the Tigers (8-6, 0-3) answered with a 7-0 spurt and later ripped off a 9-2 run after going down a dozen.
Auburn guards KT Harrell and Chris Denson entered the game as the SEC's top two scorers at more than 19 points per game, and while Tennessee forced Harrell, the Virginia transfer, into a 5-of-15 shooting night, the Vols couldn't keep Denson out of the lane.
He scored 24 points on 10-of-18 shooting as the Tigers piled up 32 interior points with a nonexistant frontcourt.
"I wouldn't necessarily say you're disappointed," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "Sometimes you've got to give credit where it's due. I thought our big guys did a solid job, but not a great job, of corralling the ball. The key for us is corralling the ball and make other guys beat you, but they put their heads down.
"Again, the new rules benefit guys like that, who slash and attack the rim, and Denson's one of those guys that can really slash and attack. If you touch him, it's a foul. You have to do the best job you can in really trying to keep him front of you, so you have to give those guys credit."
Richardson, who scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half, spent most of the night guarding Harrell, and Tennessee used both McRae and Antonio Barton to try to slow down Denson.
"It was tough," Richardson said. "KT Harrell's one of the best scorers in the SEC, so that's always a tough cover. Chris Denson did a good job of getting to the rack and using his quickness against us."
McRae, coming off a nine-point game against Texas A&M, scored seven of Tennessee's first 16 points, but he was quiet for a big stretch of the game. Martin didn't like his top scorer's first-half composure and told him to "calm down and relax."
McRae followed orders, as he poured in seven straight points during one stretch midway through the second half and scored another key basket after Auburn cut its deficit back down to six.
"I'm the kind of player that at the end of the game I definitely want the ball, especially at the free-throw line," McRae said. "That's just who I am. That's what I feel like my team needs me to do at the end of games."
Jeronne Maymon, who scored 11 points, had a key three-point play with less than five minutes left, and after Denson's three-point play cut Tennessee's lead to 68-63 with 2:43 left, the Vols closed out the game at the free-throw line.
Jarnell Stokes had 14 points and 14 rebounds for Tennessee, which was plus-14 on the glass.
The Vols needed to get the taste of the Texas A&M loss out of their mouths and did just that with Wednesday's win.
"The energy and emotion [in practice] wasn't at the level it normally is, and to their defense, I can understand, because I felt the same way," Martin said. "But you've got to muster up the energy to bounce back and get ready to go. This one will get you over the hump and get you back on your grind."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...
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