KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Auburn Tigers played their best game of the season on Saturday, reminding coach Bruce Pearl of how they played a year ago in turning in the best postseason in program history.
Samir Doughty made 8 of 13 3-pointers and finished with 32 points as No. 17 Auburn beat Tennessee 85-63, snapping a two-game skid in the regular-season finale.
“That’s about as good as we can play,” Pearl said. “Gosh offensively, felt like we controlled the game … Got open looks, and the kids knocked them down. Samir Doughty showed why he should be a first-team all-conference player, and just a lot of the pieces kind of came together.”
Auburn (25-6, 12-6) now heads to Nashville to defend its Southeastern Conference Tournament championship as the No. 2 seed after the Tigers had lost four of their previous six. Auburn already had earned a double-bye to the quarterfinals but moved up with Florida’s loss to No. 6 Kentucky.
A year ago, the Tigers won the league championship, winning four games in four days on their way to the Final Four and a loss to Virginia in the national semifinal.
“This should give us confidence heading into the postseason, but we’ll see what we can do with it,” Pearl said.
Doughty gave Auburn the opening lead with a 3 a minute into the game, and the Tigers never trailed on their way to their fifth consecutive win in this series and second straight in Knoxville for the first time in program history. Doughty finished one off his career high in points, going 10 of 17 from the floor overall.
“The rim felt wide,” Doughty said on the Auburn Network. “Yesterday during shootaround, I made about 18 3s straight, so I kind of felt good coming into the game. My teammates did a great job of getting me the basketball in my spots, and they were just open shots and I so happened to make a lot of 3s they gave me.”
J’Von McCormick scored 13 points for Auburn, and Isaac Okoro finished with 11.
“Give them credit for that,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “They played like a team today that was fighting for second place in the league and a seed, and they did. All I can do is take my hat off to them because I thought they played well.”
Tennessee (17-14, 9-9) showed off the inconsistency that has marked this season.
John Fulkerson led the Volunteers with 19 points before fouling out late. Jordan Bowden added 17 on Senior Day, and Santiago Vescovi had 13. Barnes said the Vols had too many breakdowns in not following the scouting report.
After rallying from 17 down to upset No. 6 Kentucky in Rupp Arena on Tuesday night, the Vols struggled to score for long stretches and were beaten on the boards. Auburn had a 20-9 edge in rebounding in a first half that featured a 7-minute, 10-second stretch by the Vols without a field goal and the Tigers up 42-31 at halftime.
Doughty put Auburn up 54-37 for the Tigers’ biggest lead of the game with 13:52 remaining — the same 17-point deficit Tennessee faced against Kentucky. The Vols went on a 16-4 run, with Fulkerson’s dunk pulling them to within 58-53 with 11:15 left.
But Doughty hit his sixth 3 of the game with 11:01 to go, starting a 10-3 spurt to push the lead back to double digits. Tennessee didn’t hit another field goal after Fulkerson’s dunk until a 3 by Vescovi with 4:54 to go pulled Tennessee to within 72-62. Auburn put the game away from there.
Auburn shot 50% in both halves and finished 28 of 58 for the game. The Tigers shot 43.8% (14 of 32) from 3-point range. Tennessee was 25.8% (8 of 31) in the second half overall.
Auburn: This marks just the fourth 25-win season in program history for the Tigers, and three of those have come under Pearl. … The Tigers won their ninth road game, which had been tied for most in the SEC away from home, with Kentucky and Florida at eight. … The Tigers dominated in the paint, outscoring the Vols by a 30-16 edge and on the boards (42-26).
Tennessee: The Vols will head to Nashville needing a strong performance to push themselves off the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. Barnes will lose only one senior from this team, Bowden, and he has a pair of five-star recruits coming in this fall in a recruiting class ranked fifth nationally.
Auburn: The SEC quarterfinals on Friday night.
Tennessee: The opening game Thursday at the tournament as the No. 8 seed.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25