The win sets up probably the most ballyhooed basketball game in Big Orange history. Second-ranked Tennessee will carry a 24-2 record into Saturday night's game at top-ranked Memphis, which improved to 26-0 Wednesday night by trouncing Tulane in New Orleans.
Many observers assumed the Vols would be looking ahead to Memphis and struggle against Auburn. That was not the case, however.
"I think you could see that our team was ready to play," head coach Bruce Pearl said after watching his team improve to 11-1 in SEC play. "We took our opponent very seriously and we took care of business."
Auburn starts a four-guard, one-forward lineup, with the 6-foot-8 Prowell being the lone forward. Once he left the floor midway through the first half, Tennessee attacked the basket much the way a pride of lions attacks a herd of antelope. Twenty one of the Vols' next 26 points came from either point-blank range or from the free-throw line off point-blank fouls. Discounting a 3-for-10 performance from 3-point range, UT was 16 of 23 from the floor in the first half … a sizzling 69.6 percentage.
Result: A 26-point halftime lead for Tennessee and a hole the Tigers could never escape.
"They're a little undersized," said Tyler Smith, who posted 13 points and 13 rebounds for Tennessee. "Prowell was their biggest guy. When we got him in foul trouble we knew we could go to Wayne (Chism) and a lot of other players because their inside game wasn't too good."
With Prowell out of the lineup, Vol point guard Ramar Smith repeatedly drove to the basket for layups. He finished 6 of 7 from the field and scored a season-high 19 points.
Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith chipped in 12 points each as the Vols notched their eighth consecutive victory and 30th consecutive home win. Lofton became the seventh player in NCAA history to hit 400 shots from 3-point range. He also moved past Bernard King into sixth place on UT's all-time scoring list.
Frank Tolbert scored 24 points to pace Auburn, which slips to 13-11 overall and 3-8 in SEC play. Prowell rallied from his early foul trouble to finish with 21 points.
Tennessee stretched its lead to 31 points (74-43) with 8:55 remaining. Moments later, with a 29-point cushion (83-54), Pearl inserted his second-teamers. When they allowed a 15-0 Auburn spurt that narrowed the gap to 14 points (83-69), Pearl had to return his starters to the floor with 2:06 remaining.
"Once it got down to 14 with two to go," the coach grumbled, "I had no choice."
A three-point play by Ramar Smith and a 3-point basket by Lofton quickly restored order.
Tennessee shot 51.5 percent from the floor while holding Auburn to a season-low 31.7 percent. The Vols hit 12 of 16 foul shots and won the backboards 44-40. On the negative side, Tennessee finished with more turnovers (18) than assists (17), hit just 33 percent (7 of 21) from beyond the arc and gave up 17 offensive rebounds.
In the end, the Vols did what they had to do: They used their size and depth to wear down the vertically challenged and depth-shy Tigers.
"We needed to go inside against this opponent offensively, and I thought we did," Pearl said. "We went in early and we went in often. We got good productivity in the paint, and that's what you need to do against a team that's a little undersized and a little outmanned.
"They've got six really good players. But the way we play and the pressure we put on them, made it difficult."
Once Quan Prowell went to the bench, it made it just about impossible.