Rick Barnes likes to say if he's going to lose with his team this season, he wants to lose young. What he didn't mention was that his squad was capable of winning young, too.
Tennessee extracted revenge on a a team that beat them to open SEC play in January, blowing past Auburn, 71-45, in Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday. The Vols (12-12, 5-6) were able to do it with a blend of youthful exuberance, starting two freshmen and playing two more in the 26-point rout. The trio of Shembari Phillips, who notched his first career start, Kyle Alexander and Admiral Schofield combined for 13 points in the drubbing of the Tigers as senior point guard Kevin Punter sat for much of the evening. Punter, who came into the game averaging 22 points and 34.8 minutes per contest, scored just four points in 19 minutes against Auburn. Phillips shouldered much of Punter's load with 31 minutes — most of which was spent running the point.
Did Barnes ever anticipate his team putting up such a dominant performance with its leading scorer sidelined for much of the contest?
"No, to answer that question," Barnes said. "I wouldn't think we'd win by that margin with him playing 40 minutes."
But Tennessee was able to not only win, but win convincingly as Punter racked up minutes on the bench. The Tigers turned in an abysmal night shooting that Tennessee was able to take advantage of for its most resounding victory of Rick Barnes' tenure in Knoxville. Auburn finished the game shooting just 24 percent from the field and 19 percent from behind the arc in the loss. Bruce Pearl's team made only 15 buckets the entire game in 59 attempts.
"We really wanted to defend the 3-point line," Barnes said. "That was a big thing with us tonight with them. We didn't want them to pick up guys that lit us up. We felt they had a couple guards who could go get seven, eight 3's apiece and we didn't want to let that happen ... For the most part, I thought our guys did a really good job of trying to execute the game plan."
The Vols, meanwhile, complemented an encouraging performance from the young guys and a stout defensive effort with an even better one from the veterans. Robert Hubbs turned in a game-high 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting coming off the bench, while starter Devon Baulkman turned in 14 points. Hubbs' relegation from a starter was a motivating factor for the junior guard, who turned in perhaps his best performance of the season.
"Me and coach have been having little talks about me and also the team," Hubbs said. "I have to step up. I just have to contribute in rebounding and doing little things to help my team win ... I can do a lot of things. I can pass, rebound, score in the rim. I can do some of everything, but it was just an overall team effort tonight."
Detrick Mostella rounded out the double-digit scorers with 10 points on 3-of-5 shooting from the field, including two 3-pointers. Auburn, meanwhile, finished with one of the worst shooting percentages in Thompson-Boling Arena history.
The Vols will now try to carry this success into a Saturday showdown in Columbia against Missouri, the last place team in the SEC. This isn't the first time Tennessee will leave Knoxville with an impressive home win to hang its hat on, and Barnes — whose team has won just one road game this season — is hoping for a different outcome this time around.
"It's like a broken record here," Barnes said. "We've talked about it before and we've had a good win and we've gone on the road and we haven't played up to what we think we're capable of. If we're going to get consistent, it's going to be as a group."