On the way to a 71-63 victory, Tennessee made 26-31 free throws, including 16-18 in the second half, to help the home team rally from a five-point deficit in the second period at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday.
The visitors also hurt their cause by turning the ball over 18 times, five more than Tennessee.
Although Auburn out-shot Tennessee 44.4 to 40.8 percent from the field and held the lead for slightly more than half the game, the Tigers were not able to finish strongly as they only hit one of their last 10 field goals.
Pearl noted that as was the case in his team’s previous road game at Alabama, the Tigers did a lot of things well. “We put ourselves in a position to win, but it is very frustrating we weren’t able to do so,” he said after his Tigers again failed to pick up their first true road victory of the season.
The Tigers led by as many as eight points in a game that featured eight lead changes. “They got too many 50-50 balls and too many second-chance points,” Pearl said. “The bottom line is we sent them to the foul line too much.”
Auburn slipped to 10-11 overall with its fourth straight loss, which is the longest losing streak Pearl has endured as a head coach. His Tigers are 2-6 in the SEC. Tennessee improved to 5-3 in the league and 13-7 overall.
Four Tigers finished in double figures for scoring led by K.T. Harrell’s 16 points. Tajh Shamsid-Deen and Antoine Mason scored 14 points apiece while Cinmeon Bowers finished with 13 points and a team-leading eight rebounds.
The Vols put four players in double figures, too, with forward Armani Moore leading the charge with 19 points and 13 rebounds, well above his averages of 9.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
When it came right down to it, we had no answer for Armani Moore,” Pearl said.
Commenting on his team’s performance, Pearl said, “Cim wasn’t at his best, but he still played well enough to win. K.T. was patient and was really productive from three. Tajh was terrific with two shoulders separated. With the way he competed I was just so proud of Tajh.
Antoine Mason prepares to launch a free throw vs. the Vols.“Antoine did some good things out there, but we just got two points from our bench,” Pearl said, noting the depth problem is a real issue. “Unfortunately, it is going to take us some time for us to develop it.”
The Tigers avoided a slow start, something has plagued them in many games this season. After jumping out to a 7-2 lead the game was tied a 9-9 before Auburn went on a 10-2 run to build en eight-point advantage at the 8:54 mark on a three by Shamsid-Deen, who started at point guard in place of K.C. Ross-Miller.
The Vols answered with an 8-2 run and later tied the contest at 24-24. The home team later outscored Auburn 9-5 the rest of the half to take a four-point lead into intermission.
Halftime Numbers: Trailing 33-29 the Tigers hit 10-20 field goals and 5-9 three-pointers while making 4-7 free throws. The Vols shot 43.5 percent, hitting 10-23 field goals. UT made 3-9 threes and held an advantage because of free throw shooting by making 10-13.
The Vols out-rebounded Auburn 16-10 in the first half and turned the ball over seven times, one less than the Tigers, who were led in scoring at the break by 10 from Shamsid-Deen and eight from Harrell. Punter scored 10 first half points for UT.
It didn’t the Tigers long to regain the lead in the second half. An inside basket by Mason followed by a three-pointer by Harrell put the Tigers ahead 40-37. An inside basket by Bowers at the 14:36 mark put the Tigers up by five points, but Tennessee tied the game at 43-43 with the help of technical foul shots when Trayvon Reed was ejected when charged with a flagrant foul. The official ruled his elbow intentionally hit a shooter in the face, a questionable ruling that went against the visitors.
Auburn regained the lead at the 10:49 mark as a three-pointer from the top of the circle by Mason put the Tigers up 52-49, but from that point the Vols went on an 11-0 run and the Tigers never recovered.
The Tigers hit 8-18 threes while Tennessee connected on 5-19. Auburn made 15-22 free throws and was out-rebounded 34-26.
"Obviously, tonight was a big game in terms of Bruce Pearl returning," UT coach Donnie Tyndall said. "I never talked about it with my team, though.
"I would like to say how much I respect him. Their team was picked eighth or ninth in the preseason SEC poll, but he has them playing like an upper-tier team in regards to toughness and how they are playing. Tonight was certainly a 40 minute battle and could have went the other way. From about the six-minute mark on, the best thing our team did was not settle for jumpers. We were relentless in our mentality to drive the basketball."
Worth Noting, Part 1: The Vols outscored the Tigers 20-13 in points off of turnovers.
Worth Noting, Part 2: Tennessee’s Kevin Punter said Pearl’s return “definitely” energized the crowd. “It should always be like that all the time,” the guard said. “It was great out there. It felt good being out on the court. The crowd was into it. It got us going.”
Stat of the Game: Tennessee hit 16-18 free throws in the second half and 26-31 for the game.
Up Next: Auburn travels to Baton Rouge for a 6 p.m. game on Thursday vs. LSU.