TAMPA — It has been 30 years since Tennessee won an SEC tournament title and 18 since the Vols even played for one, so coach Bruce Pearl's players are well aware of the historic chance they have today against Mississippi State.
"It's been a while," center Wayne Chism said after scoring a career-high 27 in Tennessee's 94-85 semifinal win Saturday against Auburn. "Since I've been in school, I've played in this tournament three times and came up short a lot. … That's what we came here to do this week. We came in hungry and continue to play basketball together. That's how we're playing" today.
East top seed Tennessee (21-11) trailed 15-10 early but woke up quickly, going on a 16-5 run sparked by two 3-pointers from point guard Bobby Maze. Auburn (22-11) got as close as five points in the second half, but Tennessee kept it from making runs and getting closer than seven points in the last nine minutes.
Chism led Tennessee's dominance down low as the Vols outrebounded the Tigers 44-26, but he also stepped outside to hit four of the team's nine 3-pointers. Forward Tyler Smith had 23 points, and the Vols had 19 assists, one night after getting 20 against Alabama.
Forward Korvotney Barber led Auburn with 24 points, and point guard DeWayne Reed had 14 points and eight assists. With the loss, Auburn is stuck on the NCAA bubble alongside SEC rivals Mississippi State, South Carolina and perhaps Florida. The Tigers had won nine of 10 before Saturday's loss, bouncing back after a 3-4 start that came with key players out with injury.
"They lost some games early on, with some missed free throws and injuries," Pearl said. "Since they got healthy, they've been right there as one of the top three teams in my mind in the SEC."