AUBURN, Ala. — A win is a win.
Especially at this time of the season.
Especially for a team playing for its NCAA tournament life.
It was neither easy nor a sure thing for most of the night at Auburn Arena on Wednesday night, but Tennessee did what it had to do.
The Vols overcame a poor first half and a six-point deficit early in the second half and avoided a disastrous loss with a late 14-4 run in a 82-75 road win against the Tigers.
The Vols (18-11, 10-7 SEC) entered play on Wednesday as the final team in the 68-team NCAA tournament field according to projections by ESPN and CBS, and a loss to Auburn, which had lost 13 of 14 games after a 2-0 SEC start and began the week as the SEC's lowest-rated team in the Ratings Percentage Index, surely would have been fatal to Tennessee's hopes for at-large bid to the Big Dance.
Trae Golden and Jordan McRae assured the Vols they would fight another day.
After a sluggish first half, Golden scored 16 of his 21 points after halftime, including nine of Tennessee's first 11 out of the halftime break.
It was McRae, however, the Vols’ leading scorer and SEC player of the year candidate, who delivered the dagger to the pesky Tigers.
After a series of shoulder fakes and crossover dribbles, the junior canned a straightway 3-pointer from the top of the key with less than five minutes remaining to give the visitors a 73-64 lead and cap Tennessee's game-sealing run.
Skylar McBee's trey from in front of the Vols' bench gave Tennessee a 62-60 lead it would never relinquish. During the run, McRae hit two free throws and dished to Kenny Hall for a two-handed dunk. Hall made two foul shots, and Tennessee finally stopped Auburn's Frankie Sullivan.
Up to that point, Auburn made it a fight.
The Tigers took a 44-38 lead thanks to Sullivan, the Tigers' leading scorer who hit a pair of jumpers and two free throws. The Vols would answer with a 14-5 run capped by Jordan McRae's tip dunk of Golden's miss, but Auburn (9-21, 3-14) would not go away. Sullivan scored on three straight drives at one point, including back-to-back three-point plays.
Tennessee ran out to a 14-5 lead after a little more than five minutes thanks to a 6-of-10 shooting start and a defense that forced Auburn to work deep into the shot clock, and Armani Moore's 3-pointer from the corner gave the Vols a 22-15 lead midway through the first half.
By then, though, the Tigers were looking like the team playing for its NCAA tournament hopes.
Auburn found success getting into the paint with shifty 5-foot-10 guard Josh Wallace. Jordan Price and Sullivan hit a trio of 3-pointers to bring Auburn back into the game. The Tigers got three dunks following offensive rebounds, including two by 7-footer Asauhn Dixon-Tatum, the first tying the game at 24 and the second giving the hosts a 31-30 lead.
On one possession, Tennessee fouled Wallace three times outside the 3-point line as he began driving to the basket.
Though they had scored 56 points or less in each of its last five games, the Tigers went into halftime with 35 and a three-point lead. After its hot start, which featured a 4-of-7 start from 3-point range, Tennessee made just five of its next 19 shots. Jarnell Stokes converted just one of his eight first-half free-throw attempts and missed both of his attempts in the second half.
Sullivan, who entered the top 10 of Auburn's career scoring list earlier this season, fouled out of his final home game with two minutes left after scoring 24 points.
Though he made just five of 16 shots, McRae scored 21 points, grabbed six rebounds and made nine of his 11 free-throw attempts. Stokes scored 10 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Hall (eight points), Josh Richardson (nine) and Armani Moore (seven, all in the first half) each made contributions on offense.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...