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AP photo by Butch Dill / Auburn coach Bruce Pearl reacts to a call during the first half of Saturday's SEC game against visiting Tennessee. Pearl's Tigers beat the 25th-ranked Vols 77-72.

With four minutes and 11 seconds remaining in Auburn's 77-72 upset of No. 25 Tennessee on Saturday afternoon, Keon Johnson soared for a rebound off a missed Yves Pons 3-pointer and tried to produce another one of his electrifying dunks.

This attempt missed, however, skying high off the back of the rim to preserve a 66-58 lead by the Tigers.

"Going through my head, I felt like we needed that play," Johnson said afterward. "We needed that excitement just to get the team going. Maybe that would have changed the outcome of the game and maybe not, but we just had to keep fighting."

Such invigorating efforts for the Volunteers were few and far between.

A bewildering Tennessee basketball season continued inside Auburn Arena with a sixth consecutive setback to former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl and his Tigers. The latest strange chapter included Johnson and fellow five-star freshman Jaden Springer combining for 43 of Tennessee's 72 points, with Johnson racking up 23 on 9-of-17 shooting and with Springer 3-of-4 from 3-point range to help bolster his 20-point tally.

Pons was the only other Vol in double figures, collecting 10 points to accompany his game-high eight rebounds.

"We had three guys who really brought energy today," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "Jaden has been fighting a cold, but I thought he and Keon and Yves Pons did exactly what we like for them to do. Other than that, not so much, whether that was a lack of energy or a lack of confidence.

"When you're not playing with confidence, I think it can drain you a little bit, but the bottom line right now is that we don't have a post game."

The Vols fell to 16-7 overall and 9-7 in Southeastern Conference play, while the Tigers improved to 12-13 and 6-10. Tennessee is just 5-6 in its past 11 league contests.

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AP photo by Butch Dill / Auburn guard Allen Flanigan brings the ball in as Tennessee's Keon Johnson defends during Saturday's game at Auburn Arena. Flanigan and Johnson tied for the game high in points with 23 apiece, but Flanigan made two late free throws to seal the Tigers' 77-72 victory.

Auburn played a second straight game without injured five-star freshman point guard Sharife Cooper (ankle) and overcame his absence by going inside. The Tigers pounded out a 41-34 edge in rebounds, but their determined inside presence was even more evident by their 37 free throws compared to just 10 for Tennessee.

Energy was no issue for Auburn, as all five starters reached double figures in points, with Allen Flanigan scoring 23, Devan Cambridge 15, Jamal Johnson 14, Jaylen Williams 13 and JT Thor 10.

"It's been tough this season, because we haven't had as much success as we would've liked, and we knew how young we were," Pearl said. "There hasn't been a ton of joy after games, but you could see the kids just haven't quit. Somehow, we were the more excited team to play."

A pair of Jamal Johnson free throws with 1:55 remaining gave Auburn its biggest lead at 72-60, but a Springer three-point play and a long jumper by Keon Johnson got the Vols within 74-70 with 19.8 seconds left. Keon Johnson's driving layup with six seconds to play made it a one-possession game at 75-72, but Flanigan was fouled with four seconds remaining and sank both free throws.

Auburn turned the ball over a staggering 21 times in Tuesday night's 74-57 home loss to Florida and had 12 turnovers Saturday, which was one fewer than the Vols committed. Tennessee has now gone 12 straight games with double-digit turnovers.

"I expect our team to get better and better and better as we go on, and I expect the mistakes to come down, down, down," Barnes said. "If you've got a problem rebounding the ball, I expect that to be fixed. When the lights go on, you've got to go do it, plain and simple, and we're not fixing the things we keep talking about.

"Maybe we don't have the ability to do it. I don't know."

What is reality for the Vols is that the younger players are having to pick up the older players both on and away from the court with some regularity now. Tennessee senior forward John Fulkerson had four points and four turnovers.

"Over this period, I've gotten to really learn my teammates, and we've really gotten to know each other and become closer," Springer said. "The only thing you can really do is talk to everybody, lift everybody's spirits and tell them that we're going to be right there with them until the end of this."

Said Barnes, when asked about the toughest players mentally on his team being freshmen: "It's one of the hardest things for coaches to accept. It almost makes you feel sick to your stomach."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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