AUBURN, Ala. (AP)The Auburn Tigers finished with a second-half flourish and a better feeling about their NCAA Tournament prospects.
Wendell Green Jr. scored 24 points and the Tigers closed the regular season with a 79-70 victory over No. 12 Tennessee on Saturday in a huge boost to their postseason credentials.
Auburn (20-11, 10-8 Southeastern Conference), which had lost eight of its previous 11 games, rebounded from an overtime loss at No. 2 Alabama with their biggest win of the season. The Volunteers (23-8, 12-6) didn’t score over the final six minutes.
“We’re at the point right now where it’s win or go home, so nobody’s worrying about their stats,” Green said. “We just lost to Kentucky and Alabama so we knew we had to get a win. We see all the bracketologists’ stuff, so we knew we needed to get a win.”
Playing their first full game without SEC assist leader Zakai Zeigler, out for the season with a torn left ACL, the Volunteers lost their fifth straight road game.
Auburn got back to back three-point plays to pull away late with both Flanigan and Green making layups, drawing fouls and hitting free throws. Green’s finish gave Auburn its biggest lead of the game to that point, 72-64, with 1:37 left and capped a 12-1 run.
“Where do you begin and where do you end on this one?” Tigers coach Bruce Pearl said. “The players have been through a lot this year. It’s been a bit of a grind. The league is so competitive. Teams play so hard and so physically, This team’s been through some real adversity but continued to get up off the mat and compete.”
The Volunteers missed their last seven shots, making their last field goal with 6:13 left on a Santiago Vescovi jumper.
“We were just flying around as a team,” Williams said. “We didn’t care about the matchups. We were just trying to guard everybody.”
Green scored just seven points on 2-of-10 shooting in the previous meeting, a 46-43 Tennessee win. He matched that over the final 1:37 of this game and the Tigers scored 49 in the second half alone against a defense allowing just 56.7 points a game, third-best nationally.
Johni Broome had 17 points and seven rebounds, while the 6-foot-10 forward also hit his seventh and eighth 3-pointers of the season. Flanigan had 16 points and Jaylin Williams added 13 points, eight rebounds and seven assists after both were among the seniors honored before the home finale.
Santiago Vescovi led Tennessee with 21 points and had four assists in helping fill the void left by Zeigler. He made 5 of 9 3-pointers.
Tyreke Key scored 13 points while Josiah Jordan-James and Julian Phillips each had 10.
“We just had way, way too many defensive breakdowns in areas we haven’t in a long time,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I thought coming out of halftime our defense wasn’t very good at all.”
Auburn only hit two baskets in the final 4-plus minutes of the opening half but both were 3s from Green. The second snapped a 7-0 Vols run at the buzzer to cut the halftime margin to 34-30.
Green scored all nine of his first-half points over the final 5:54.
Barnes wasn’t pinning the loss on Zeigler’s absence. His team did have 16 assists.
“We’ve got enough guys that can handle the ball and do what we need to do,” Barnes said. “You’ll always miss a guy like Zakai but that’s not why we lost the game.”
Tennessee: Continues its struggles on the road and has lost its last four games at Neville Arena. The Vols out rebounded Auburn 35-29.
Auburn: The Tigers are 1-3 against ranked teams. They reached 20 wins for the fifth time in six season. They committed only six turnovers.
Tennessee and Auburn both head to the SEC Tournament in Nashville, Tennessee.
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