By Greg Ostendorf
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Bruce Pearl walked out during Tuesday's pre-game shoot-around with a t-shirt that read "4-14." It was the record one national college basketball analyst recently predicted Auburn would finish with in SEC play, and it was meant to motivate his players prior to their first conference game at No. 23 Tennessee.
The ploy worked. The Tigers pulled away late and left Knoxville with a 94-84 victory. It was the first time Auburn had won at Tennessee since 1998, and it was the first time the program had taken down a Top-25 team on the road since winning at No. 25 Alabama in 2007.
"I'm celebrating it because we got a road win against a nationally ranked team."@coachbrucepearl on @AuburnMBB 94-84 win at No. 23 UT. AU's first victory in Knoxville in 20 years. pic.twitter.com/3n0QAQW7RL
-- Jeff Shearer (@jeff_shearer) January 3, 2018
Auburn, who has now won 11 straight games, will get another chance to make a statement this Saturday when No. 22 Arkansas comes to town (5 p.m. CT, ESPNU).
Here are three takeaways from Tuesday's game.
Auburn might have the smallest frontline in the SEC. The starting power forward is 6-foot-3, the starting center is 6-foot-7, and of the nine players who play regularly, only three are 6-foot-7 or taller. But that hasn't fazed them all year, and it was no different Tuesday night.
The Tigers outrebounded Tennessee, 46-38. They pulled down 22 offensive rebounds that led to 28 second-chance points. And they won the points-in-the-paint battle, 28-18.
"Tennessee is a great offensive rebounding team," Pearl said. "They're not a great rebounding team, they're a great offensive rebounding team. We thought we could do OK on the offensive glass, but our biggest concern was just keeping them off. [Our offensive rebounding] was a factor in the fact that we got some more shots and got some big second possessions."
Catching fire late
Coming into the Tennessee game, Auburn led the SEC in three-point shots made (127) and three-point shots made per game (9.8). However, the Tigers struggled from beyond the arc for most of Tuesday's game as they had just four go down through the first 34 minutes.
That all changed in the final six minutes, though, thanks to Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke. First, it was Brown who knocked down a three-point shot to put Auburn up four. Then after the Volunteers closed the gap back to one, Okeke made back-to-back shots from long range to extend the lead to seven. Then after a Davion Mitchell layup, Brown hit another to make it 80-68.
In a span of maybe four minutes, Brown and Okeke combined to make five three-points shots. Brown finished with a team-high 18 points and is now averaging 16 points per game over his last six games while Okeke scored 11 points off the bench.
The three leading scorers Tuesday -- Brown (18), Jared Harper (18) and Mustapha Heron (16) -- were all starters, but the key to the win was just as much about the four players who came off the bench as it was the five starters.
When the starters fell behind early, Pearl turned to Okeke and fellow reserve forward Horace Spencer to give the Tigers a spark. Spencer, in particular, played a major role in the team's first-half comeback and finished with 10 points and nine rebounds in 20 minutes. Okeke made some clutch shots down the stretch, but he also stood his ground on the defensive end as well.
More than anything, they provided a much-need boost to the starters.
"There's nobody rooting harder for Chuma than Desean Murray, the guy that start in front of him," Pearl said. "And nobody was happier for Horace Spencer than Anfernee McLemore, the guy that starts in front of him. I think that's so far been the key to our team. Our team trusts one another."
Even freshman point guard Davion Mitchell, who had six points and three assists, gave Auburn some critical minutes at times when Harper was out.
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: