By Jimmy Hyams
Butch Jones would have loved this game.
Brick by brick, Tennessee and Auburn misfired from short-range and long-range, clanging shot after shot off the rim – when it wasn’t an air ball.
Eight-eight missed field-goal attempts and 12 missed free throws was the final count.
But the final score went Tennessee’s way, 46-43 Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena in a game between two alleged Top 25 teams.
There’s such a thing as good defense.
There’s also such a thing as awful offense.
You saw a combination of both in a matchup of teams fighting for second place in the SEC standings.
It wasn’t settled until Auburn guard Wendall Green fired up a 3-point shot with less than 3 seconds left and collided with UT’s Olivier Nkamhoua in what easily could have been called a foul. Nkamhoua appeared to move under Green, not allowing him to land, although Nkamhoua was vertical.
ESPN color analyst Robbie Hummel said it was an obvious foul and Green should have been awarded three free throws.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl stormed onto the court after the no-call, pleading his case with the official.
To no avail. The Vols survived in one of the worst shooting performances you’ll see in an SEC contest.
How bad was the shooting? Auburn hit 11.1% from 3-point range (3 for 27) and that was better than Tennessee, which hit 9.5% (2 of 21).
For the game, Tennessee made 27% to Auburn’s 23.6%.
The two teams were a combined 3 for 48 from beyond the arc.
The Duke-Florida State women’s game was played with a men’s basketball.
The Tennessee-Auburn game was played with an anvil.
“If you play great defense and rebound the ball,’’ said UT coach Rick Barnes, “you give yourself a chance to win.’’
Tennessee shot less than 30% for the second game in a row. It lost at Florida on Wednesday night. It prevailed against Auburn despite worse shooting.
“A game like that shows a lot of character, how you respond when you’re not making shots,’’ said UT wing Josiah-Jordan James, who led the Vols with 15 points and a career-high 14 rebounds.
Tennessee shot poorly in both halves, failing to crack 30% in either 20 minutes.
“I thought we had good looks at the basket,’’ said Barnes, now 5-7 against Pearl’s Auburn teams. “Sometimes they go in. Sometimes they don’t.’’
Barnes said a low-scoring slugfest isn’t unusual at this time of year.
“It’s February,’’ Barnes said. “A lot of teams struggle at this time of year. (Physicality) is what you expect at this time of year. I don’t think there is a more physical league in the country.’’
Barnes praised James for his 14-rebound effort.
“How can you impact winning when you’re not shooting well?’’ said Barnes. “You can impact it with defense. You can impact it with rebounding and second shots.’’
Tennessee won the game in part because it turned 15 offensive rebounds into 10 points while Auburn had eight offensive rebounds that it converted into only two points.
Auburn jumped to a 10-2 lead as the Vols couldn’t buy a bucket, starting the game 1-for-11, then 2-for-17. Despite that frigid start, UT found itself tied at 13-13 about midway through the first half.
The Vols led 23-19 at halftime and fought back and forth with the Tigers until a late spurt put UT ahead 36-28. An eight-point lead seemed like an 18-point lead with scoring hard to come by.
Auburn made a push but Santiago Vescovi converted a 4-point play with 2:33 that seemed to be the dagger.
It wasn’t. UT was ahead 44-38 with less than 40 seconds left, but Tobe Awaka missed two free throws. Green hit a 3 and scored Johni Broome made a tip-in to make it 44-43 with 18 seconds left.
UT point guard Zakai Ziegler, who was 0-for-10 from the field, made two free throws with 16.3 seconds left, setting up the last-ditch attempt by Green and a favorable home-court non-whistle.
“Our bigger lineup was more effective today,’’ Barnes said. “Length was important.’’
Asked about Ziegler’s poor shooting effort, Barnes said: “What would help him as much as anything is the people around him scoring baskets. We need balance.’’
UT didn’t have balance. But it had James, who delivered on the boards.
“I knew coming in that’s what I’d be called to do,’’ said James, whose season high in rebounds was eight. “I did what the team needed to help us win.’’