The veteran coach said that he deserves the blame for the uninspired performance by the home team that came out sluggish and didn't get a whole lot better in dropping its third straight game to fall to 4-3 in the SEC and 15-5 overall.
"I am disappointed in our team and I don't think we played as a team," said Ellis, who noted that the Vols "did the things they needed to do to win."
In contrast, his team didn't do what it needed to win, Ellis said. "I thought we took too many bad shots, our defense was soft and Tennessee got the upper hand early and when we tried to make a run they stayed strong. Slay, Higgins and company...they kept them in their strong. In the SEC you can't take a night off. I take full responsibility for this basketball game.
"Our team got here a certain way by working hard and doing things that are done as a team. Our shot selection in the early part was just terrible. We had guys who were selfish early on and our defense was just too soft. You can't play that way. That is not how we got to where we are. This is my first disappointment in us as a group since Dec. 17 (a loss to Western Michigan).
"We can't play this way," Ellis added. "We absolutely cannot play this way. Unequivocally. It starts right here. Whatever I need to do to get them back where we work hard and play as a team, I need to do it. We simply didn't do that in the early part of the game and it cost us."
Auburn fell behind 8-2 early and the Vols built the lead to 13 points at the 4:35 mark of the first half on a three-point basket by freshman point guard C.J. Watson, who outscored his Auburn counterpart, Lewis Monroe, 10-0. Auburn was fortunate to trail by just 32-25 at the break after hitting 37.5 percent of its first half shots to 54.2 for the visitors.
The Tigers never led the whole game, but had their chances despite getting down by double figures again in the second half as the Vols took a 45-35 lead at the 12:06 mark. Auburn then went on a 15-6 run with the help of three baskets by Brandon Robinson, including a steal and a dunk that cut the gap to 51-50 with with 5:26 to play.
Brandon Robinson's breakaway slam pulled the Tigers to within one point.
Seconds later, Nathan Watson had a wide open look from the wing for a three-pointer to give the Tigers the lead, but couldn't hit it. The Vols, with the help of untimely Tiger turnovers on bad passes, stretched the lead back to five points before Auburn cut it to 58-56 on a bank shot by senior Marquis Daniels, who scored 15 for the Tigers.
Good Auburn defense forced a bad shot on the next Tennessee possession, but Ron Slay got a putback rebound basket for his 21st point of the game.
Auburn still had a chance when Daniels hit the first of two free throws with 15.1 seconds left and then the Tigers got the rebound on the second. Daniels launched a three-pointer to tie the game that bounced off the rim. In a wild scramble for the ball, he came out of the pack just in time to get to the corner for a three-point attempt to beat the buzzer. He got the rushed shot off in time, but couldn't make it and the Tennessee escaped with a victory.
The win improved UT's record to 11-6 overall and 4-3 in the SEC.
Kyle Davis tries to deal with Tennessee star Ron Slay.
Ellis said he didn't see such a poor effort coming. "We didn't have that team focused today," he said, noting that the Tigers had a good week of practice.
Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson said the Vols emphasized stopping Marco Killingsworth in the post and doing a good job of defending the three-point shot. Both strategies succeeded. Auburn made just 2-16 three-pointers and Killingsworth got off only seven shots. He made three as he scored six points and had four rebounds.
Peterson said he was thrilled to see the Vols win a tight game after losing in similar situations earlier this year. "I guess if you do it so much you get tired of losing some of those," he said. "If you have got people with a big heart or whatever they are eventually going to get it turned around."
Higgins scored 10 points for the Volunteers, who outrebounded the Tigers 33-24. Another key to the victory was that the Vols hit 11-13 free throws. That helped them overcome 19 turnovers, three more than Auburn made. The overall shooting was about even with the Vols hitting 47.8 percent from the field to 47.1 for the Tigers, but the Vols made three more three-pointers than the home team.
"We started out playing very slow," noted Daniels, who said the Tigers didn't play with energy early in the game. "We got down early and fought back, but it was a little bit too late." Daniels and Brandon Robinson led the Tigers in scoring with 15 points and Derrick Bird added 11.
"Tonight we didn't play as a team and we didn't do a lot of things we usually do to get here like getting our offense going," Daniels said. "We were out of sync. I thinking having the week off may have set us off a little bit and might have been the reason why we came out slow. Tennessee did a great job."
Bird said that the Vols didn't do anything the Tigers weren't expecting. "The first half we didn't come out and have that fire that we have. We have no one to blame but ourselves. This is a tough loss. We are just going to have to fight back."
The Tigers return to action on Wednesday with a 7 p.m. home game vs. Ole Miss.
"This game was ours to take and we didn't take it," Bird said of the loss to the Volunteers. "We didn't come out and want it bad enough. We can't complain or do nothing about it. It is just on us."