Auburn exploited Higgins absence by dropping off defensively on Ron Slay, who eventually fouled out on a called charge at the 5:07 mark with a team-high 16 points and nine rebounds.
Tennessee (17-11) never led in the game and was last tied at 6-6 early in the first half, but the Vols did cut a 14-point advantage Auburn built after Slay fouled out to six points at 55-49 before the Tigers regained command.
It was indicative of a performance that was better in terms of effort than execution by a UT team that played with emotion, but often appeared in disarray without the veteran Higgins in the lineup. This was particularly true early as the Vols scored only six points in the first 13 minutes of play and were held scoreless for an eight-minute stretch in which Auburn had an 11-0 run to take a 17-6 lead.
Tennessee broke the scoring drought with eight points in 90 seconds, highlighted by a pair of 3-pointers from Slay who came into the game as the SEC's leading scorer with a 21.6 ppg average. Slay's long-range jumpers from the top of key nearly equaled UT's team total to that point and it put the Vols back in contact with the Tigers who was also suffered from spotty offense.
"They sagged off the guards to deny me the ball," Slay said. "We've just got to step up and hit the shots like we do in practice."
Normally Higgins, who shot nearly 50 percent from behind the arc, would be the player Tennessee would go to on the perimeter. He would also take over some of the ball handling duties which would free C.J. Watson up on offensive end. UT's Buzz Peterson started freshman Stanley Asumnu on the wing and moved Thaydeus Holden to the two guard. Freshman John Winchester and sophomore Derek Stribling came in after Asumnu had trouble getting into the flow. Collectively, the trio of young replacements had no field goals and only four points.
More significantly, without Higgins steady hand to help guide the offense, Watson scored only two points on 1-of-9 shooting from the field. Holden did score 14 points with three triples, but only shot 4-of-13 for the game. Brandon Crump also had 14 points and 10 rebounds, but he also made seven of UT's 17 turnovers and was often overmatched by Auburn's physical front line led by Marco Killingsworth who scored a game-high 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting with three slam dunks.
Likewise Higgins was missed on defense as all-conference swing guard Marquis Daniels got dribble penetration against both Tennessee's man and zone defense, finishing with 12 points and four assists.
The Tigers connected on 26-of-58 for 44.8 percent and hit just 4-of-13 of their 3-point attempts. The Vols finished with 18-of-49 from the field and 5-of-16 from 3-point range. The Vols also had their problems at the foul line where they made 12-of-21 for 57.1 percent.
Additionally, Auburn, which broke a five-game losing streak against UT, made 11 turnovers and 11 assists while the Vols had 17 turnovers and only eight assists. The Tigers had a slender 34-32 edge on the boards.
The loss means that Tennessee is still the only SEC team not to ever reach a semifinal match in the tournament since the conference expanded to 12 schools in 1992.
Of greater interest is whether the loss to Auburn and and the loss of Higgins will keep the Vols out of the NCAA field of 64 for the second consecutive season. Tennessee's Peterson appeared optimistic that his team wouldn't be relegated to the NIT.
"I still think this is a NCAA team," he said. "I think Auburn is also deserving. I told our guys it's been a good season and I think we'll play again in the NCAA."
Tournament selections will be announced on Sunday.