AUBURN – Tony Barbee looked at the box score in front of him. The story, he said Wednesday night, was there for all to see.
Josh Wallace goes to the basket against Tennessee/Lauren Barnard photos
“I’ve never seen a stat sheet like this,” said Barbee, Auburn's third-year basketball coach.
Auburn, shooting 50.9 percent from the field, had four field goals more than Tennessee. It had two more made 3-pointers. But Auburn was 10-of-12 at the free throw line and Tennessee was 27-of-38. Auburn was whistled for 27 fouls to 16 for Tennessee.
“Never seen that before,” Barbee said. “It’s the difference in the ballgame.”
On Senior Night at Auburn Arena, the Tigers played with passion. They hit shots. They defended. And they lost 82-75 before a crowd of 5,420.
Barbee’s feelings were clear, though he was careful not to cross the line that could lead to a reprimand from the Southeastern Conference office.’
“I’m not making any assumption on it, opinion on it,” Barbee said. “It’s the difference in the game. It’s on the stat sheet.”
Auburn continued its worst slump since the 1940s, losing for the eighth straight time and 14th time in 15 games and falling to 9-21 overall and 3-14 in the SEC. Tennessee won its seventh straight to improve to 18-11 overall and 10-7 in the SEC.
Auburn’s five seniors were all in the starting lineup. Walk-on Dylan Spencer hit the first basket of his career, a 3-pointer, to give the Tigers a quick lead. Frankie Sullivan scored 24 points. Feisty 5-foot-10 point guard Josh Wallace scored 14. Noel Johnson scored 9 points. Rob Chubb had seven points and six rebounds. It wasn’t enough.
“I’m disappointed they couldn’t go out with a win on the home court,” Barbee said. “Those guys represent everything that is right in college athletics, all five of them. Frankie has already graduated. The other four will all graduate on time with great degrees from Auburn. They are going to go on to be very successful in life and represent Auburn as Auburn men in an unbelievable way.
"I’m disappointed for them that we’ve had the kind of season we’ve had. They deserved more. They deserve to go out as winners. I couldn’t be more proud of the way these guys have contributed to this program and this basketball family.”
Junior Chris Denson, Auburn's second-leading scorer, did not play. Barbee said his back tightened up and he was unable to go. Denson sat on the bench but never removed his warmup suit.
With Wallace slashing to the basket and scoring 10 points, the Tigers jumped led 35-32 at halftime. After Sullivan scored back-to-back three-point plays led 55-52 with 12:23 left. But Skylar McBee hit a 3-pointer, his only basket of the game, to give the Vols a 62-60 lead with 9:16 left. Auburn never led again.
“Very tough,” Sullivan said. “We just wanted to leave the fans with a good taste in their mouths. We didn’t do that as seniors. We fought. It was disappointing, for real.”
Sullivan shrugged off the foul discrepancy, pointing instead to his seven turnovers.
“They referee the game and we play the game,” Sullivan said. “He made the call he thought was right. We can’t argue with that. It wasn‘t so much the fouls. I had seven turnovers. You can’t win a ballgame like that. You take my seven turnovers away and we probably win the game.”
Sullivan saluted Wallace, who came to Auburn as a walk-on and became a starter.
“Man, he’s a fighter,” Sullivan said. “He’s a little lion. I love him to death. He’s been one of my best friends since I got here, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be friends until the day we die.”
Trae Golden and Jordan McRae led Tennessee with 21 points apiece. Jarnell Stokes had 11 points and 12 rebounds, though he was 1-for-10 at the free throw line.
Auburn goes to Mississippi State on Saturday and needs a win to avoid finishing last in the 14-team SEC. The SEC Tournament starts next Wednesday in Nashville.
“The season is definitely not over,” Sullivan said. “You see how it’s been going all year. Everybody is beating everybody. We just have to go in with an aggressive mindset and leave it on the court. We don’t have anything to lose. We might as well keep fighting.”