KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — This time, Tennessee proved it could clinch a victory rather than fall apart down the stretch.
Jordan McRae scored 21 points and Jarnell Stokes had a double-double Wednesday as Tennessee beat Auburn 78-67 to hand the Tigers their third consecutive defeat. Tennessee (11-5, 2-1 SEC) never trailed and redeemed itself four days after a stunning 57-56 home loss to Texas A&M in which it blew a 14-point halftime lead.
The Vols now carry some momentum into Saturday's game at No. 13 Kentucky.
"We just had to realize that it's a long season," McRae said. "Being 2-1 (in the SEC) right now going into Saturday, we're feeling good about ourselves."
Tennessee shot 51 percent (26-of-51) overall and went 20-of-25 from the free throw line in the second half to pull away down the stretch. The Volunteers maintained their poise and didn't make the mistakes that doomed them against Texas A&M, which won Saturday's game on a 3-pointer with 4.4 seconds left after trailing virtually the whole game.
The effects of that collapse were apparent in the Vols' next few practices, but they managed to avoid a letdown Wednesday.
"The energy and emotion (in practice) wasn't at the level it normally is," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "(In) their defense, I can understand because I felt the same way, but you've got to muster up the energy to bounce back and get ready to go. This one will get you over the hump and back on your grind."
Tennessee got a boost from the presence of Hall of Famer Bernard King, who starred for the Vols from 1974 to 1977 and was visiting his alma mater before heading to Memphis to receive the National Civil Rights Sports Legacy Award next week.
King spoke to the team Tuesday and watched Wednesday's game from behind the Vols' bench and received a standing ovation while being introduced during a first-half timeout. Martin said King talked to the players about the value of being a good teammate among other things. Martin also said he spent about 90 minutes with King before Tuesday's practice.
"You can learn a lot from a guy like that," Martin said. "It's always good to have former players back. For me, it doesn't matter if he's a great player, a role player, a walk-on. It's all the same. It's family."
McRae scored 14 of his 21 points in the second half as Tennessee won for the fifth time in its last six games. Stokes scored 14 points and pulled down 14 rebounds. Josh Richardson had 15 points. Antonio Barton and Jeronne Maymon added 11 points each.
Chris Denson had 24 points to lead Auburn (8-6, 0-3), which lost to Tennessee for the sixth straight time despite shooting 8-of-17 from 3-point range. KT Harrell had 15 points, and Tahj Shamsid-Deen added 10.
Tennessee outrebounded Auburn 42-28 and outscored the Tigers 17-2 in fast-break points.
"Their big guys made the difference in this game with their presence, getting offensive rebounds inside and getting to the foul line," Auburn coach Tony Barbee said.
Auburn faced an early dilemma when Harrell, who entered the night with a Southeastern Conference-leading 19.3 points per game, picked up his second foul barely two minutes into the game. With Harrell on the bench, Auburn seemed out of sorts as Tennessee raced to an 11-4 lead.
That's when Barbee put Harrell back in the game and gambled that his star guard wouldn't pick up a third foul. The move paid off.
Although Tennessee eventually extended its lead to 16-6, Harrell scored eight points and sank consecutive 3-pointers in a span of just over two minutes as Auburn got back into the game. Harrell went on to play 11 minutes in the first half without getting that third foul as Auburn continued to stay within striking distance.
Auburn got within 33-31 when Shamsid-Deen sank a 3-pointer 12 seconds into the second half. Tennessee's hot second-half shooting helped the Vols extend the lead to as much as 12 points, but each time the game threatened to get out of hand, Auburn responded with a spurt to regain momentum.
But as close as Auburn occasionally got, the Tigers never could take the lead.