NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Before the final Tennessee fans reached their seats inside Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, their team had won. There was still plenty of time left and the game was technically just beginning, but it was obvious Rick Barnes' first foray into the SEC Tournament would be a memorable one.
The Vols jumped out on a 20-7 run in front of an announced 9,878 and never looked back, smacking Auburn, 97-59, to advance to the second round against Vanderbilt. Rick Barnes' team turned in its most complete performance behind Armani Moore, who ran the point in place of the injured Kevin Punter, whose career came to an end after he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot. The senior finished with 22 points to lead all scorers, but it wasn't just Moore who vaulted the offense to its most impressive offensive performance of the season. It was the most points by Tennessee ever in the SEC Tournament and the most scored by the program in any game since January 2014.
Detrick Mostella ended the game with 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting and Devon Baulkman notched 16 in the win. Tennessee shot a whopping 59 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point range in the 38-point win.
"I don't think you ever go into a game thinking you're going to win by that margin," Barnes said. "What we did the last two days, we said very little. We set teams up where we wanted those guys to compete, and they've done the best job all year about talking. We actually said to them, as a coaching staff you try to get your team hardened for this time of year, but this is a time for players."
The energy was flowing from inside the building from the opening tip until the final whistle, and it wasn't by accident. Tennessee made a conscious effort to play with a nothing-to-lose attitude that was apparent with every loose ball and rebound.
"The Warriors lost to the Lakers the other night and coach Barnes gave us a quote from Steve Kerr," Schofield said. "He said that this time of year is about defense, toughness and energy. Those are the things that we've emphasized coming into Nashville."
The outpouring of offense started from Moore, who was recruited to Tennessee by former coach Cuonzo Martin as a point guard and has come full circle after playing every position on the floor since. The senior complemented his 22 points with five assists, four rebounds and masterful work running the point.
"Guys were on edge, talking, communicating, helping each other out, scrambling," Moore said. "I think that's what it's all about. Once you go out there and compete, I feel like you have fun by doing that. You get out on the offensive edge. You have more energy. You're taking better shots. I think that helped us out today big time."
Even center Derek Reese got in on the fireworks. Reese nailed two 3-pointers and finished one point away from his second career double-double (nine points and 11 boards).
"We just came out there and played with some swagger," Reese said. "Just like coach said, we were going to come out there, let it all out, especially for us seniors. You could just tell everyone is coming to play all out."
The competition gets much tougher tomorrow with the Vols taking on a solid Vanderbilt team that swept them in the regular season. Tennessee must find an answer for the Commodores' size inside, something it failed to do in the previous two meetings.
"They had their way with us in Knoxville," barnes said. "They beat us as lopsided as this game was for us tonight. I think there we were fighting uphill ... I think our guys will compete, and why not?"