Wiedmer: Bruce Pearl almost sounds like he's moved on

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl claps for his team in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Crystal LoGiudice)

KNOXVILLE - Bruce Pearl said all the right things Tuesday night inside Thompson-Boling Arena. After all, six full seasons have come and gone since he last walked the sideline as the Tennessee basketball coach. Pain dims. Perspective grows. Auburn writes his paychecks now. Auburn also employs not only Pearl but his son Steven.

So at the close of the Tigers' surprising 94-84 road victory over the No. 23 Volunteers, Pearl didn't talk much about the six years he coached the Big Orange, all of those seasons ending in NCAA tournament appearances.

He didn't talk about the NCAA violations that cost him his Vols job, or the current FBI investigation involving former Auburn star Chuck Person, who began this school year on Pearl's staff and whose actions might yet cost Pearl his Auburn gig.

Instead, he focused only on the win, which not only happened to be Auburn's 12th straight but also came against a ranked opponent away from home.

"I'm celebrating," he said with a smile, "because we just won a conference road game against a nationally ranked team."

photo Auburn guard Mustapha Heron (5) is defended under the basket by Tennessee forward Admiral Schofield, right, and Tennessee guard James Daniel III (3) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. Auburn won, 94-84. (AP Photo/Crystal LoGiudice)

The Tigers won because, at least on this night, they appeared the hungrier team, the more focused team, the more disciplined team, which could often have been said of Pearl's UT outfits.

Check the hustle stats and the Tigers won the offensive rebounding category by a 22-14 count, winning the overall rebounding 46-38. Second-chance points? Try AU 28, UT 18. Blocks? AU by a 5-3 total. Steals? Make it Tigers 9, Vols 3. And total shot attempts? Make it Auburn 74-58.

"We have guys who want to show they can do other things instead of doing their jobs," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said after his squad's second straight loss, both coming in Southeastern Conference play. "Their players understand their roles. The guys who are supposed to rebound it, rebound it."

In many ways, it was a classic Pearl victory, a bunch of overlooked overachievers - "The island of misfit toys," his past teams sometimes have been labeled - sticking it to a more glamorous opponent by sheer force of will and wile.

"We've got to keep a chip on our shoulder," said Auburn guard Bryce Brown, who finished with 18 points and five made 3-pointers. "We expected to win this game. We competed and fought hard."

It looked like it would be anything but hard for the Vols early on. The home team led 28-14 after 10 minutes. Auburn looked like what it's been rumored to be - a so-so team that entered this game 12-1 because of a soft schedule.

"I was worried," Pearl said. "We'd led something like 95 percent of our minutes coming in here. I told 'em, 'Let's just try to hang around.'"

By halftime they'd hung in enough to have put the Vols behind at intermission for the first time all season, the Tigers on top 42-36. And when UT finally took the lead by five (61-56) with 8:32 to go in the game, Auburn hung five made 3s in its final seven attempts on the home team to completely stun the 14,755 who'd ventured out on this frozen night to cheer the Vols.

Causing particular pain to UT was Tiger reserve freshman Chuma Okeke, who hit three triples in the final 5:05 to all but single-handedly secure the upset.

"He's a freshman," Pearl said. "He doesn't know to be nervous. But the best thing is, nobody was happier for him than the guy he replaced: Desean Murray. This team really trusts one another."

But one should also trust that this wasn't a normal win for Pearl. This was his first win over his old employer inside Thompson-Boling. The fist pumps and high-fives and broad smiles weren't typical of a January road victory. Even one of the conference variety on foreign hardwood.

"It's emotional for me to be here," he said. "I still have so many great friends here. I was here before (Thompson-Boling) had black seats and suites and a practice gym. But that's not why I'm celebrating. I'm celebrating because it's a great win for Auburn."

Maybe because of the time that has passed since tears flowed from his eyes during his first trip back as the Auburn coach in 2015, or because maybe he really has moved on, or the cold has frozen all reasonable doubt, but you're 95 percent inclined to believe him.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.