AUBURN, Ala. - The competition hasn't been the stiffest, but Tennessee appears to be playing its crispest basketball of the season in the early days of college basketball's most important month.
The Volunteers followed up a dominant home win on Saturday with a dominant performance away from Thompson-Boling Arena at Auburn on Wednesday night.
Four days after hammering Vanderbilt by 38 points, Tennessee blew out of the gates to a 24-4 lead and never looked back in cruising past the Tigers 82-54 for its third consecutive win in front of a sparse crowd at Auburn Arena.
For the first time this season, the wildly inconsistent Vols (19-11, 10-7 SEC) extended a SEC win streak to three games, and a win in Saturday's regular-season finale against fellow NCAA tournament bubble team Missouri would clinch a double-bye for the SEC tournament in Atlanta next week.
If Georgia, which beat Mississippi State by 25 points in Athens on Wednesday night, loses at LSU and the Vols beat the Tigers, Tennessee would be the third seed in the conference tournament.
Jarnell Stokes led a balanced attack offensively with 20 points, and the Vols' big man added seven rebounds and a career-high seven assists in an impressive all-around performance he often made look easy.
Point guard Antonio Barton kept up his recent hot-shooting streak with four more 3-pointers and 14 points, and leading scorer Jordan McRae chipped in 13 points despite shooting just 3-of-11 from the field in 25 minutes. Jeronne Maymon added 13 points and eight rebounds, and Josh Richardson scored 10 as Tennessee put all five starters in double figures.
Tennessee was just 5-8 away from Thompson-Boling Arena and 3-7 in true road games this season, but the Vols looked like a supremely confident team in squashing Auburn from the opening tip.
Auburn (13-15, 5-12), in its fourth season under coach Tony Barbee, entered Wednesday 12th in the SEC standings ahead of only South Carolina and Mississippi State, but the Tigers were 5-5 in their last 10 games following an 0-6 start in league play. Auburn was also 4-4 in SEC play inside of its 9,121-seat, four-year old arena.
Florida (seven), Missouri (two), Kentucky (eight) and Vanderbilt (eight) all escaped Auburn with single-digit wins.
Tennessee made sure it wouldn't need a similarly narrow win in the game's opening minutes.
The Vols scored the game's first 10 points on a couple of 3s from McRae and Barton, while Auburn missed its first six shots from the field and didn't score until Chris Denson's layup at the 16:05 mark of the first half.
After the Tigers trimmed its early deficit to seven points, Tennessee put a 13-0 run on the hosts to blow the game open even more. Barton and McRae again hit from 3-point range, and Darius Thompson's steal-and-layup made it 22-4 and prompted Auburn coach Tony Barbee to call his second timeout of the half with 9:36 left before the break.
Five straight points from McRae pushed the lead to 29-6 before Auburn point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen hit back-to-back treys to double the Tigers' scoring output and prompt a Tennessee timeout.
Out of that timeout, Thompson, Tennessee's 6-foot-5 freshman point guard, threw down an alley-oop off a feed from McRae on what looked like a designed play.
After assisting on four of Tennessee's first five baskets - and nearly matching his career-high set last season against Kennesaw State - Stokes did most of his scoring damage late in the first half.
He hit a layup through a triple team and converted the three-point play, scored on a putback after Armani Moore's athleticism kept alive an offensive rebound and laid it in off a feed from Thompson. The seven straight points Stokes scored pushed Tennessee's lead to 38-14.
After McRae missed a 3 in the half's final seconds, Stokes put back the miss as the Vols led 44-20 at halftime.
Just a few days after holding Vanderbilt to 22 percent shooting in a 76-38 win, Tennessee held Auburn to 32 percent shooting (8-of-25) in the first half while shooting 50 percent and outscoring the smaller Tigers 18-6 in the paint. The Vols also turned six offensive rebounds into 13 second-chance points.
Denson, the SEC's second-leading scorer, finished his final home game with just three points on 1-of-10 shooting. He scored 24 points against Tennessee in the Vols' 67-58 win against the Tigers in Knoxville in January. KT Harrell, the league's sixth-leading scorer, scored 15 points for the Tigers.
Tennessee's largest lead of the game was 28 points (60-32) at the 12:59 mark of the second half, and Auburn never trimmed its deficit to less than 22 points until the game's final three minutes.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.