However the youth movement paid off as Tennessee (14-11, 6-8) came roaring back behind an aggressive defense that forced consecutive turnovers and propelled the Vols into game contention. The most significant of these turnovers was forced by freshman guard Dane Bradshaw who went to the floor for the loose ball to ignite a transition basket on a slam dunk by freshman forward Major Wingate. Bradshaw drew his first career start against Auburn (13-12, 4-10) and drew praise from his head coach.
"Dane's hustle play was the key to the game," Buzz Peterson said in a post game interview. "I started him because I thought we needed another ball handler on the floor against Auburn."
After an 8-0 run put Tennessee back on top, 61-59, with 5:29 left, the teams went back and forth until the Vols went up for good, 66-65, with 2:19 left. Scooter McFadgon put the game away hitting six straight free throws over the last two minutes of play to cap a game-high 23 points that featured a perfect 13-of-13 performance from the foul line. The Vols hit 24-of-28 of their free throws in the game compared to Auburn's 17-of-23. The pressure free throws enabled Tennessee to overcome a 43-32 deficit on the boards which included 18 offensive rebounds for the Tigers.
"I'm really proud of our guys and their effort down the stretch," said Peterson. "I was very excited about the effort and hustle plays. We needed Major Wingate down the stretch and he came through for us."
Peterson credited at least part of Tennessee's high energy effort to a clear-the-air team meeting held in the aftermath of Wednesday's blowout loss at Kentucky. Wingate finished the game with nine points for Tennessee while sophomore point guard C.J. Watson had 16 points, six rebounds and three assists. Crump had 10 points before being ejected from the game with 8:58 remaining. Auburn was led by Brandon Robinson who scored with 19 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Tennessee shot 43 percent (23 of 53) from the field in the game including 5-of-13 three-pointers. Auburn, which connected on only 25 percent of its field goals in the first half, shot 48 percent in the second half to finish at 36 percent (23 of 63) for the game.
The Vols travel to Vanderbilt on Wednesday hoping to earn their first SEC road victory in their last chance of the season. A win in Memorial Gymnasium against the Commodores seems unlikely, but so did the manner of Tennessee's win over Auburn. Every journey to respectibility begins with a single step.