AUBURN | Was it aggression or was it favoritism?
Auburn shot 51 percent from the floor against Tennessee on Wednesday night, a remarkably high number for the typically cold-shooting Tigers, and went 10-for-12 at the line. Guard Frankie Sullivan broke from his slump and scored 24 points.
Even point guard Josh Wallace, who rarely makes major offensive contributions, finished with 14 points. It was a rare tour de force for the Tigers' attack.
Still, Tennessee beat Auburn 82-75 inside Auburn Arena.
"I've never seen a stat sheet like this," coach Tony Barbee said.
His beef? Free throws. His team shot a dozen. Tennessee finished the night 27-of-38 from the line, which gave the visitors a 17-point advantage in that single facet of the game.
"It was the difference in the game," Barbee said. "I'm not making an assumption on it, opinion on it. The difference in the (free throw) numbers is the difference in the game."
Auburn was called for 27 fouls Wednesday night while Tennessee drew 16 whistles. Though a few calls against the Tigers were questionable- every game presents difficult dilemmas for officials - the home team clearly struggled to mitigate Tennessee's ability to create shots the basket.
Forward Jarnell Stokes finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. His play could have been far more damaging; the sophomore went 1-for-10 at the line. Reserve forward Kenny Hall was 3-of-3 from the floor, adding eight points.
The Tigers (9-21, 3-14) had their advantages as well.
Sullivan found his stroke early in the second half, scoring 15 points during the first eight minutes. He hit a three-pointer, scored on drives, drew fouls and hit the free throws. The senior appeared to be back to his dominating ways.
"I was being really aggressive. The shots were falling for me -- and it's about time they did," Sullivan said.
Then it all fell apart.
Sullivan scored only two more points after his epic surge. He was whistled for an offensive foul with 2:22 remaining in his final home game. It was his fifth and final foul.
"They referee the game; we play the game," said Sullivan, who finished with 24 points. "I can't argue with that. I'd give those six minutes back to get the 'w.'"
Two other seniors had big moments Wednesday. Wallace scored 10 points during the first half - an unexpected offensive renaissance that gave Auburn an important edge. Foul trouble, and the adjustments it forced, played a role in Wallace scoring just four points after halftime.
Walk-on guard Dylan Spencer scored the Tigers' first basket with a three-pointer that brought fans to their feet. He'd never started a game before.
"He works his tail off in practice," Barbee said. "I wasn't worried at all about starting Dylan. It was a big moment."
Sullivan's second-half surge helped Auburn build a 60-59 lead with 9:31 remaining. Tennessee went on a 14-2 run after that, though, which squelched the Tigers' hopes. A trio of three-point baskets from Noel Johnson during the final three minutes created some token drama.
The Vols (18-11, 10-7) hit five of their final six free throws to seal the victory. For Auburn, it was a 14th loss in 15 games. Still, Barbee gushed about his seniors after the game.
"Those five guys represent what's right in college athletics. They'll go on to be very successful in life and represent Auburn in an unbelievable way," Barbee said. "(Wallace) gave everything he could to win this game. If you couple transplant Josh's heart into every player the he game, you'd have some (great) players out there. That kind of heart could go a long way for some of those guys."
Auburn ends the regular season Saturday at Mississippi State.