published Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Defense wins it for Vols

KNOXVILLE -- Some of it was good defense, and some of it was bad offense.

Whatever it was, Saturday evening's basketball game between Tennessee and Auburn reflected teams that entered the day in the bottom half of the Southeastern Conference standings.

Don't expect the Volunteers to give back one of their relatively easier wins of the season, though.

Tennessee held the Tigers without a field goal for more than 10 minutes and built a 14-point halftime lead that never reached less than nine in a 64-49 league win at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"Like Coach [Cuonzo] Martin says," said UT guard Skylar McBee, "if we hang our hat on defense and really do what we need to do there, you can shoot 30 or 35 percent when you're holding teams to 20 and 25 percent. You can do that and win. That's what we're trying to get to."

That's where the Vols (10-11, 2-4) were on Saturday night in notching the program's 1,500th win. Jeronne Maymon had 15 points and 19 rebounds, and five UT players scored in double figures. But the Vols shot just 34.5 percent, made only four of 20 3-point attempts and watched Auburn turn 16 turnovers into 20 points.

UT shot 35 percent in a lopsided midweek loss at Vanderbilt, but the improved defense and Auburn's offensive woes created a different outcome. The Tigers' 30-percent shooting night was the lowest the Vols have allowed this season. All the missed shots resulted in a UT season-high 53 rebounds.

"I think we're getting better," said Martin, UT's first-year coach. "We had a poor showing in Nashville, but since SEC play has started we've gotten better. I think we're at about 75 percent on defense [with] 25 percent to go to be a really good defensive team, but we're getting there."

The Tiger (12-9, 2-5) scored just three points and didn't make a field goal following Kenny Gabriel's baseline jumper that gave them a 13-12 lead with 9:46 remaining in the first half. The Vols went on a 12-1 run, capped by McBee's 3-pointer and a three-point play by freshman Jarnell Stokes, who had 11 points, six rebounds and four steals.

The Tigers twice got within nine points in the second half, the final time at 44-35 with 6:38 left. Four free throws by Trae Golden, a rare two-point shot from McBee and a pair of Jordan McRae free throws pushed UT's lead back to 17.

McRae's solid night -- the sophomore scored 11 points, pulled down a career-high six rebounds and blocked two shots in 25 minutes -- was a surprise. Since scoring 10 points in his first game in a bench role against Florida, the 6-foot-5 wing had scored just nine points in five games. He played only eight minutes against Vanderbilt.

"Really nothing was different," he said. "The past couple of games I've been playing terrible, so I had to do something about it. I think I stepped up. I don't think [Martin's] been pleased with the way I've been playing, so I had to do better."

McBee made two 3s in his 12 points, and Trae Golden made all eight free throws to reach 13 points. Gabriel led Auburn with 13 points, while Varez Ward and Rob Chubb added 12 and 10. Frankie Sullivan, Auburn's leading scorer for the season, scored just five points on 2-of-12 shooting.

The Tigers had just 30 rebounds, which was only 11 more than Maymon had by himself.

"He's just a physical presence, and he thinks every time the ball hits the rim it's his," Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. "Those are the kinds of big guys you want. We expect somebody else to get the rebound, when he thinks every rebound that hits the glass is his. That's how you've got to play as a big man."

How Martin would like to see the Vols play is more consistent with a trip to top-ranked Kentucky looming.

"It's really about guys doing the right things," he said. "We can't go into games wondering who will step up or who will play well. We have to know I'm getting this from this guy every night. I think that's the next step for us: There has to be a level of consistency."

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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