AUBURN, Ala. - It may have come against teams sitting 10th and 12th in the SEC standings, but Tennessee appears to be playing its best basketball of the season in the early days of college basketball's most important month.
The Volunteers' dominant performance in an 82-54 rout of Auburn, a team that at home had been a tough out for some of the more talented teams in the league, in front of a sparse crowd at Auburn Arena on Wednesday night served another notice that Tennessee may be hitting its stride at the right time.
Just four days after hammering Vanderbilt by 38 points, Tennessee won its third consecutive SEC game for the first time this season by 28 points, and the 66-point margin of victory is the most in back-to-back conference games for the Vols since 1965.
"This is definitely our best basketball, not counting the opponent," said Vols big man Jarnell Stokes, who had 20 points, seven rebounds and a career-high seven assists. "I feel like this team definitely felt like they could have pulled this game out on senior night, emotions are high. We basically came in and just took the life out of the arena.
"I'd say this is probably our best basketball, at the right time, also."
Heading into Saturday's regular-season finale, against fellow NCAA tournament bubble team Missouri, Tennessee (19-11, 10-7 SEC) remains in control of its destiny for a double-bye in the SEC tournament in Atlanta next week. A win gives the Vols' the fourth seed, and a win plus a Georgia loss means the Vols would slide up to the third seed.
Though Auburn (13-15, 5-12) entered the game third-bottom in the SEC standings, the Tigers had followed an 0-6 start in SEC play with a 5-5 stretch and were 12-5 overall and 4-4 in the SEC at home this season.
None of the teams, including Florida, Kentucky and Missouri, had won here by more than eight points, but the Vols made it clear from the game's opening minutes they weren't heading for a similar scrap.
Tennessee scored the game's first 10 points and led 24-4 at the 9:36 mark of the first half after a 13-0 run.
"We knew we had to come in and take their hearts right away," said Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon, who had 13 points and eight rebounds. "With it being senior night, we didn't want them riding high on emotions.
"We do this every year," he added with a sheepish grin. "I've been saying this for a while: we do this every year, you know, get tough wins down the stretch. Hopefully it pays off this year."
Stokes assisted on four of the Vols' first five baskets, including a couple of inside-out 3-pointers for Jordan McRae and Antonio Barton, who followed up a 21-point outburst against Vanderbilt with 14 points and four 3s on Wednesday.
McRae (13 points) and Josh Richardson (10) rounded out a balanced attack for Tennessee, which shot 50 percent in the first half and led 44-20 at halftime while limiting Auburn to 32 percent shooting before the break.
"It was all on defense," Stokes said. "We basically drew a line, then told them to cross it. I feel like that was a great defensive effort from top to bottom, as far as guards getting through screens and playing against two of the top leading scorers in the SEC. It's hard coming into an arena senior night and winning the game, definitely when their seniors are their best players."
The Vols pushed around the smaller Tigers inside and racked up big advantages in paint points (40-18) and rebounding (43-25), while hitting five of their eight 3s in the game's first 11 minutes.
"This is the team I envisioned defensively, and I think it really helps when Antonio's making shots," third-year Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I think Antonio's done a great job really running the team as the point.
"We always take pride down the stretch of the season continuing to improve your skill, continue to improve on both ends of the floor, and it's just a matter of the guys really understanding and embracing it."
Auburn's Chris Denson, the SEC's second-leading scorer at more than 19 points per game, scored just three points on 1-of-10 shooting. He scored 24 against Tennessee in the Vols' 67-58 win in Knoxville in the teams' previous meeting in January.
Richardson drew the defensive assignment on Denson and was proud to hold him well below his average.
"I definitely was [proud]," he said. "I was trying to sit down on defense, that's all. It was good help when I got beat, so I felt like it was a good night in general."
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.
"We've been kind of up and down this season," Maymon said. "A lot of different things transpired and everything like that. We're catching our stride right now, so hopefully we can hold on for one more, and then refocus and get ready for SEC play."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.