"It was a terrific basketball game," Bruce Pearl said in the post game press conference. "Very high scoring. I thought the players made the great plays. You had to enjoy the performances of some of the individuals. You know, obviously Wayne Chism with a career high. Just offensively played with great fluidity. You know, Tyler Smith just being the difference maker in his match up. Made so many tough shots. He's obviously our glue."
Pearl also praised the play of point guard Bobby Maze, who had 11 points, six rebounds, five assists and only one turnover. Scotty Hopson and Cameron Tatum added 11 points each, giving the Vols five players in double figures. The Vols never led by less than five points in the second half
"I thought we got very good point guard play from Bobby Maze tonight with five assists and one turnover," Pearl said. "You know, defensively we struggled with the ball screen. And we know we're going to see an awful lot of ball screens tomorrow from Mississippi State. So we're going to have to work to improve that."
Chism scored 16 of his total in the first half, hitting 4 of 7 from beyond the arc to pace the Big Orange to a 47-36 lead at the half. He went 10 of 16 from the field for the game essentially shooting either from the perimeter or slamming down power dunks. He also had a game-high nine rebounds as the Vols dominated Auburn on the boards to the tune of 40 to 24.
That was the key to the victory along with some sizzling shooting, as the Vols made 57.6 percent from the field (34-of-59) and 47.4 percent from three-point range (9-of-19). Those totals came against a Tiger squad that leads the SEC in field goal defense.
Korvotney Barber led Auburn with 24 points, hitting 11 of 14 from the field. Rhasheem Barrett scored 18, Tay Walker had 17 and DeWayne Reed added 14. The Tigers made only 10 of 31(32.3 percent) of their triple attempts.
UT has struggled this year with its offense but has been consistent in the tournament, scoring 43 points in each half against Alabama and 47 each half against Auburn. The Vols will need points in bunches again Sunday against Mississippi State which has easily disposed of South Carolina and LSU behind hot shooting from the perimeter.
But coach Pearl likes the Vols energy, focus and their chances of doing something that hasn't been accomplished by UT's mens basketball program in three decades.
"We are very focused on the opportunity to prove who the best team is in the SEC," he said. "We don't know that yet. But tomorrow we'll have an opportunity with the victory if we can win, to be the best team in the league. But it would take victory tomorrow for us to be able to say that."
And that's all that stands between Tennessee and history.