Arms crossed with a look of resignation on his face, Tony Barbee stared down Auburn’s bench for answers.
Only, there were few to be found for the embattled Tigers head coach as Tennessee’s Josh Richardson raced down court for a one-handed slam, prompting Barbee to turn back to Auburn assistant Milt Wagner and ask, “What happened?”
On a night when the Tigers were honoring their seniors’ final home game at Auburn Arena, the Tigers struggled from the tip in a season-low offensive showing as visiting Tennessee dealt Auburn an embarrassing 82-54 defeat Wednesday night.
“We knew we had to come in and take their heart away with it being Senior Night,” Tennessee senior forward Jerrone Maymon said.
When asked if he thought the game could also be his last at Auburn Arena, Barbee sidestepped the question and left the media room 1:42 into his postgame press conference.
“I’m proud of the guys and the way they’re fighting, and looking forward to coaching against Texas A&M,” Barbee said before abruptly pushing away from the table and walking out for the fourth straight game.
In four years under Barbee, the Tigers (13-15, 5-12 SEC) are just 48-74 overall (a .393 winning percentage) and 17-50 (25.4 percent) in the SEC.
Regardless of what happens in the regular-season finale Saturday at eighth-place Texas A&M, Wednesday night’s loss clinches Barbee the second-worst four-year conference stretch in program history. The worst four-year SEC record was 11-39 (22 percent winning percentage) between the 1942-43 and 1946-47 seasons.
After being honored before the game, Auburn senior guard and team-leading scorer Chris Denson had his second straight off night from the field, scoring a season-low 3 points on 1-of-10 shooting. Denson, who scored a previous season-low 6 points in a 73-57 loss to rival Alabama last Saturday in Tuscaloosa, missed his final eight field goals before leaving the court with a minute to play to a lonely handshake from Barbee. Denson missed his final 12 shot attempts against the Tide after scoring two quick buckets in the first 6 ½ minutes.
“I think he’s pressing. I think he’s thinking about the whole leading the SEC in scoring deal and it’s hard to play under that pressure,” Barbee said of Denson.
Auburn opened the game by missing its first six consecutive field-goal attempts as Tennessee built a 10-0 advantage before Denson hit a jumper 3:55 into the contest.
The Volunteers (19-11, 10-7 SEC) piled it on while the Tigers’ shooting woes continued throughout the first half as Auburn missed 14 of its first 16 shot attempts as Tennessee mounted a 29-6 lead by the time Auburn freshman guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen nailed a 3-pointer with 6:19 remaining in the first half.
“You can’t really explain it, we came out flat and dead,” Shamsid-Deen said. “They had more life than us and it gave them the big lead.”
The Tigers finished the half 4-of-5 from the field as senior center Ashaun Dixon-Tatum hit back-to-back jumpers in the closing minutes, but they couldn’t find a stop as Tennessee big man Jarnell Stokes outrebounded three Auburn players for a Jordan McRae missed 3-pointer and put it back at the buzzer for a 44-20 lead at half.
Auburn opened on a 13-9 run over first 4:03 of second half, looking energized coming out of halftime as Harrell drilled a 3 to pull within 54-31 with 15:57 remaining. But the sharp-shooting Volunteers ripped off a 7-1 run over the next 3 minutes to stretch the lead to a game-high 28-point advantage (60-32) on one of four 3-pointers by Antonio Barton with 12:59 remaining.
“We just didn’t want to go out how we did. We wanted to try to have the seniors leave on a good note,” Shamsid-Deen said. “(But) we can’t take the game back.”
Shamsid-Deen led the Tigers in scoring with 17 points, shooting 5-of-8 from 3, while Harrell added 15 points and Dixon-Tatum scored 12 in his final home game. Fellow senior Allen Payne also added 4 points on 2-of-7 shooting.
Dwarfed at nearly every position, with Tennessee featuring only one starter shorter than 6-foot-6, Auburn was out rebounded, 43-25, for the game and 33-20 on the defensive end.
Stokes led all five Tennessee starters in double figures with 20 points to go along with a career-high seven assists and seven rebounds while Barton added 14 on 4-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc and McRae and Maymon each had 13. Richardson added 10 points. Despite a scoreless night, Volunteers reserve Derrick Reese pulled down seven rebounds, six on defense, to single-handedly outrebound every Auburn player by at least three.
Alex is the Auburn University Sports Writer for the Opelika-Auburn News.
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