Leading by a dozen at 34-22 following a Frankie Sullivan three-pointer with 5:43 left in the first half, Auburn appeared to be in good shape, but that was far from the way things would turn out as the Vols went on a 16-0 run before another Sullivan three at the buzzer would draw Auburn to within one 38-37 at halftime.
An early DeWayne Reed steal and basket in the second half would briefly put Auburn on top 40-38, but after that it was all Volunteers the rest of the way. Pounding the Tigers inside and out led by point guard Bobby Maze and big man Wayne Chism, Tennessee proceeded to outscore Auburn 43-18 in the final 20 minutes on the way to the win.
From the time in the first half when Sullivan‘s basket gave Auburn a 12-point lead, Auburn scored just 21 total points in 25:43 of game action while Tennessee scored 59 points. Lebo said following a hot start his team just had no answer for the more physical Vols.
"We were right where we needed to be at the half," Lebo said. "I thought until the 16 minute mark we moved the ball offensively and we were in rhythm for the first time in a long time. Even with the fouls we had, 14 fouls in the first half. We had to go to the bench late in the first half and that's kind of where they made a run."
The first half started out perfect for the Auburn Tigers as they out hustled and outplayed the favored Vols in the first 15 minutes to build a substantial lead. Back and forth was the order of the night early as the two teams traded baskets until an Earnest Ross three-pointer put Auburn up 17-14. A Volunteer free throw would cut the lead down to just two before the Tigers would go off on Tennessee to build a big lead.
With just over 10 minutes left in the first half Auburn had a two-point lead, but the Tigers had already taken 20 shots with 12 of them coming from behind the arc with four made three-pointers. When Lucas Hargrove drained Auburn's fifth triple of the game with 10:37 remaining to make it 20-15, it started a run for Lebo's club.
After a J. P. Prince basket cut the lead back to three, Frankie Sullivan hit two three-point baskets sandwiched around two Reed free throws. The second three gave Auburn a 28-17 lead over the Vols, but the Tigers weren't done. With the lead trimmed back to six following a Hopson basket at the 6:28 mark, back to back three-pointers by Reed and Sullivan pushed Auburn's lead back to a dozen with 5:43 left in the half.
"I thought we had to come out with some toughness," Lebo said. "We did that and made some shots early. We have a tendency to go through these long droughts where we cannot score. We've got to be able to get an easy basket inside. At this level you can't rely on outside shooting the whole game."
That's when the Tigers would hit one of those streaks and Tennessee would ramp up its defensive effort. Pounding the ball inside and getting to the foul line while Auburn went stone cold from the floor, the Vols scored 10 of its next 16 points at the line as Auburn would go scoreless for over five minutes. That meant a four-point Tennessee lead following two Chism free throws with 43.7 seconds left. Needing something good to happen, Auburn got a desperation three from Sullivan at the end of the half to make it 38-37 Tennessee at the break.
Following 20 minutes Sullivan had 12 points while Hargrove added 10 as Auburn made just 12-37 shots from the field. The positive was the Tigers made 10-24 shots from behind the arc to build the early lead. On the other side Tennessee was 12-22 from the floor and made 11-14 free throws to get back in the game and eventually take the lead.
Things would get worse in the second half as Auburn briefly took a lead before the Vols would run away and hide. Leading 42-40 following a Sullivan basket, Tennessee scored 13 of the next 14 points in the game to take a commanding 53-43 advantage. Five straight Auburn points from DeWayne Reed cut the lead back to seven momentarily with 12:14 remaining, but again the Tigers would go cold.
In the next five and a half minutes Auburn would go scoreless while Tennessee ripped off 15 points from six different players to build a 22-point cushion. The Tigers would never threaten the rest of the way as a Reed free throw with 4:25 remaining was Auburn's final point in the 81-55 defeat.
Reed led the way for the Tigers with 19 points on 5-15 shooting while Sullivan added 14, also on 5-15 shots. The only other Auburn player in double figures was Hargrove with 10. The Tigers made just 17-56 shots from the floor (30.4 percent) and added 11-35 (31 percent) from behind the arc.
Maze and Prince each scored 14 points to lead four Vols in double figures for the game with Maze adding nine assists. Tennessee shot 60.8 percent from the floor and made 7-18 shots from behind the arc in the win.
Auburn returns to action Saturday at 3 p.m. when the Tigers take on undefeated and second-ranked Kentucky at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.