Whereas Tyndall’s Vols needed all 40 minutes to pull away for a 71-63 victory over Pearl’s Auburn Tigers, the popularity contest was settled well before tipoff. Fans gave Pearl a nice ovation when he took the floor for pre-game introductions, a testament to his success as their head man from 2005-11. Lest anyone question their loyalties, however, they roared when Tyndall took the floor moments later.
Pearl got another warm ovation when he was introduced during pre-game ceremonies but, again, Tyndall’s ovation was much louder and much longer. Clearly, Vol Nation was sending the current coach a message: Pearl was our guy but you’re our guy now.
“Oh, yeah. I sensed it,” senior captain Josh Richardson told InsideTennessee. “As soon as Coach Tyndall walked out into the gym and the crowd got so loud, I huddled everybody up and told ‘em, ‘It’s game time. Let’s be ready to go from the tip and let’s get this one.’”
Because Pearl’s tenure produced the Golden Age of Tennessee basketball, Tyndall worried that some Vol fans might pull for their former coach to beat their new coach. Saturday’s crowd made sure it obliterated that concern as soon as Tyndall took the floor.
“I think it gave him a lot of confidence coming in,” Richardson said.
The fact 18,439 people showed up at noon to watch an unranked Tennessee squad riding a two-game losing streak face an unranked Auburn squad on a three-game skid is a testament to the Pearl Mystique. Love him or hate him, fans find him compelling. That made for quite an atmosphere at Saturday’s game.
“It definitely had a great feel to it,” Richardson said. “The crowd definitely was electric today.”
The atmosphere remained fairly electric, even as the Vols struggled. Down 19-11 early, they gradually clawed back to take a 33-29 halftime lead. Auburn opened the second half with a 13-4 spurt, however, building a 42-37 lead and prompting Tyndall to call timeout.
“Guys were a little apprehensive,” Tyndall said, adding: “We were trying a little too hard. That’s why I called the timeout when we were down five, tried to regroup. From then on I thought we relaxed and played a little bit better.”
Especially Armani Moore. The 6-foot-5 junior went off shortly after play resumed. With Tennessee down 43-39 he scored on driving four-footer and was fouled. Officials ruled the foul a flagrant-2 and ejected Auburn’s Trayvon Reed. That gave Moore two foul shots and Tennessee the ensuing possession. After sinking both foul shots, Moore scored inside to cap a six-point possession that saw him produce all six points as the Vols surged in front 45-43.
|AUBURN COACH BRUCE PEARL|
The Tigers clawed back, however, and led 52-49 with 10:45 left. That’s when Tennessee made an 11-0 run that turned the game. Derek Reese opened the rally with a follow basket, then Richardson and freshman Tariq Owens hit two foul shots each. Kevin Punter buried a 3-pointer from the right wing, then Devon Baulkman tacked on two more free throws.
Suddenly, Tennessee had its biggest lead of the game at 60-52 with 7:52 remaining.
Auburn closed to 62-59 on a 3-pointer by K.T. Harrell but Punter hit two free throws and Reese nailed a 3 from the key, bumping the lead back to eight points (67-59) with 4:52 remaining. The Tigers narrowed the gap to four (67-63) but Punter (2 of 4) and Reese (2 of 2) made enough free throws in the final minute to seal the deal.
Moore led Tennessee with 19 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals and an assist. Seven of his rebounds were off the offensive glass.
“Armani Moore was terrific,” Pearl said. “We had no answer for him.”
Punter hit 5 of 7 shots (3 of 4 from 3) and added 17 points. Richardson chipped in 15 points and 6 assists. Reese contributed 11 points and 5 rebounds for the Vols, now 13-7 overall and 5-3 in SEC play.
Harrell scored 16 points to pace Auburn, which slips to 10-11 and 2-6. Tahj Shamsid-Deen and Antoine Mason added 14 points each.
Pearl said he was “disappointed that we weren’t able to finish the job,” adding: “We played well in stretches but Tennessee made those effort and energy plays there (at the end). They’re a very athletic team. They’re quick, they’re long and their speed and quickness were able to beat us to (loose) balls. That’s the way my teams were when I was at Tennessee – small and quick.”
Tyndall insisted beating Pearl was no more gratifying than beating any other opposing coach but Tennessee’s players knew better. Their coach’s intensity level made clear that this game meant a little extra.
“Definitely,” Richardson said. “You want to win every game for your coach but, as a team, we knew this one meant a little more to him.”
Given Pearl’s lingering popularity, a head-to-head win on Tyndall’s home floor could have reinvigorated the “Bring Back Bruce” folks. Tyndall had to be relieved after avoiding that scenario.
“Oh, yeah,” Moore said. “I think that’s a small portion of it (thrill of victory). Coach Tyndall’s a competitive guy and I feel like he wants to get the win against any opposing coach but I’m pretty sure this is a good feeling for him to come out on top tonight.”
It didn’t show up in the box score but Tennessee got an assist from Butch Jones. The Vols’ head football coach sat in the middle of the students’ section, keeping them vocal and animated throughout the game. Tyndall was grateful for the help.
“Butch has been unbelievable since I’ve been here,” Tyndall said. “We’ve become pretty good friends. For him to do that speaks volumes and volumes about what type of person he is. He’s got no ego. He’s just a regular ol’ guy.
“For him to do that to try and help us is pretty cool.”
Pearl hinted at some mixed emotions in facing a Tennessee program he helped rebuild.
“I don’t want any team in the SEC to do well, other than Auburn and Tennessee,” Pearl said. “I want Donnie to do well…. There are probably other teams that I want to beat more than Tennessee…. We helped create a culture of winning.”
In the end, Pearl’s return to Thompson-Boling Arena was everything he hoped it would be except for one detail: It wasn’t a triumphant return.
Tyndall post-game video
Armani Moore with reporters
Josh Richardson recaps win