Actually, the 13-point final margin was not at all indicative of the disparity between the two teams. Tennessee led 66-44 with 5:10 to go, then elected to slow the pace and burn some clock. The Vols typically struggle when they milk the clock, and this time was no exception. They managed just one field goal the rest of the way, enabling Auburn to close the game on a 12-3 run.
"The kids came out with a focus," Jones said on the post-game show. "I told 'em in the pre-game talk 'No slippage.' Our mantra has been defense, rebounding and playing together; we can't have any slippage."
The Vols didn't, winning the backboards 38-24 and leading for 38 of the game's 40 minutes.
Despite a tender ankle, freshman Tobias Harris chipped in 14 points for the Vols, now 15-7 overall and 5-2 in SEC play. Senior Josh Bone, filling in for the injured Hopson, added 8 points and 3 assists in his first career start. He also did a superior defensive job on Auburn's top scorer, Earnest Ross, who finished with almost as many turnovers (5) as points (7).
"You know what you're going to get from Josh Bone," Jones said. "Josh is focused, he's mature, he's strong. He doesn't force his game, and he played a great defensive game on Ross."
With Ross shut down, Allen Payne scored 13 points to pace Auburn, now 8-14 overall and 1-7 in conference play.
The homestanding Tigers led only once, going up 2-0 when Kenny Gabriel hit a 10-foot bank shot to open the game's scoring. Tennessee scored the next six points and led 19-6 with 11:52 left to intermission. At this stage the Vols had a 10-1 rebound advantage against a Tiger team that was without 6-10 Rob Chubb, who missed the game due to a disciplinary suspension.
Auburn closed to 23-15 but Tennessee spurted again and went to the break on top 37-24. Auburn scored the first basket of the second half to pull within 37-26 but Melvin Goins answered with a 3-pointer, and the Tigers never got closer than 12 points thereafter.
The Vols sometimes struggle against zone defenses but that was not the case Thursday night. Although they made just 4 of 19 shots from 3-point range, they routinely penetrated the Tiger zone for points in the paint.
"Seventeen assists on 23 baskets ... boy, that's big-time," Jones said. "That shows the players are sharing the basketball and looking for open men. We got some good stuff in that's exploiting zone defenses."
Tennessee returns to action Saturday, hosting Western Division leader Alabama (14-7 overall, 6-1 SEC) at 5.