Vols lose at Auburn and lose double bye in SEC tournament

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior guard Santiago Vescovi connects on one of his five 3-pointers during Saturday afternoon's 79-70 loss at Auburn. Vescovi finished with 21 points but was held scoreless in the final six minutes.

Tennessee entered Saturday afternoon's regular-season finale at Auburn allowing just 56.7 points per game and having held the Tigers to 43 points last month in Knoxville.

It's no secret where Volunteers coach Rick Barnes pinpointed the difference in the 79-70 loss.

"We just had way, way, way too many defensive breakdowns in areas that we haven't in a long time," Barnes said in a news conference. "Coming out of halftime, our defense wasn't very good at all. We gave up too many dribble-penetration layups, and we were not rebounding the ball the way we need to consistently.

"The same stuff they ran in Knoxville they ran here, but as far as getting our hands up and getting deflections — we didn't have it."

Saturday's rematch was nothing like Tennessee's 46-43 win in Thompson-Boling Arena on Feb. 4, when the teams combined for 88 missed shots. The No. 12 Vols were an impressive 8-of-17 from 3-point range (47.1%) this time around, while Auburn committed just six turnovers.

"To put 79 on Tennessee, man, that's hard to do against a Rick Barnes-coached team," Tigers coach Bruce Pearl said. "They're so solid defensively and so physical."

Tennessee finished the regular season with a 22-9 overall record and an 11-7 Southeastern Conference mark, but Saturday's setback coupled with Missouri's 82-77 win over visiting Ole Miss enabled Mizzou to grab the fourth double bye at the SEC tournament in Nashville. Mizzou also finished with an 11-7 SEC record but earned the tiebreaker over the Vols with its 86-85 win in Knoxville on Feb. 11, when DeAndre Gholston hit a 3-pointer from nearly 30 feet as time expired.

The fifth-seeded Vols will open SEC tournament play late Thursday afternoon against Wednesday night's winner between 12th-seeded South Carolina and 13th-seeded Ole Miss.

"Whatever seed we get, we're going to be ready to go," Vols senior guard Tyeke Key said. "We're going to be fired up and excited to play."

Santiago Vescovi's jumper with 6:13 remaining put Tennessee up 63-60, but Auburn (20-11, 10-8) countered with a 12-1 run that put the game away. Allen Flanigan and Wendell Green had driving layups that resulted in fouls during the decisive surge, and they made their free throws to complete the three-point plays.

Green led all scorers with 24 points, while Johni Broome added 17, Flanigan 16 and Jaylin Williams 13.

Vescovi, who was held scoreless in the final six minutes as Tennessee missed its final seven shots, paced the Vols with 21 points, with Key contributing 13 and Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips 10 apiece.

"We held them without a field goal for six minutes," Pearl said. "That's why we won the game."

Tennessee used 3-pointers by Vescovi and Key for a 10-2 run that turned an early 11-7 deficit into a 17-13 lead. The Vols took a 34-30 advantage into halftime behind 11 points from Vescovi, who went 3-of-5 from long range in the first 20 minutes.

The Tigers had their own 10-2 run to start the second half, getting 3-pointers by Flanigan and Broome to take a 40-36 lead, and a Liam Berman dunk with 10:36 remaining gave Auburn a 53-47 edge.

"We just had some breakdowns, especially on some big-shifting plays," Key said. "We've got to learn from it, obviously, going into this next stretch."

Tennessee played its first full game following sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler's season-ending knee injury in Tuesday night's 75-57 win over Arkansas. Zeigler accompanied the Vols to Auburn.

Odds and ends

Vols senior forward Uros Plavsic was 0-for-4 on free throws and is 17-of-49 this season (34.7%). ... The Vols were 12-of-19 as a team on free throws (63.2%). ... Tennessee dropped to 5-8 against Auburn under Barnes.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.