One problem: the Tigers simply ran out of gas.
The No. 9-ranked Lady Vols’ dug from their largest deficit this year to an SEC opponent, topping Auburn 75-66 Thursday night before 3,312 noisy fans at Auburn Arena.
When senior Blanche Alverson knocked down a jumper with 14 minutes, 29 seconds to go, the Tigers led 45-33. The first-place Lady Vols had yet to trail by double-digits in an SEC game coming into the night.
“This was the last time we’ll play Tennessee at home,” Alverson said, “and this is the one we wanted to get.”
However, Tennessee (14-3, 5-0 SEC) raced down the court and saw Taber Spani lay it in seven seconds later. The comeback was on: an 11-0 run ensued, and by the final minute the Lady Vols had stretched their own lead to 13, an extended 40-15 run spanning 13 minutes.
“It felt like at one point we couldn’t do anything right, and we were trying so hard to turn it back around,” Alverson said. “The coaches said in one of the timeouts, you have to play to win, not play to not lose.”
After holding the Lady Vols to 33 percent shooting in the first half, Auburn watched Tennessee flip that around to the tune of 54 percent in the final 20 minutes, racking up a total of 48 points.
“Basketball is a game of runs, and we knew that Tennessee was going to make their run,” Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flourney said. “They’re too good of a team not to make their run, and their run got too far away.”
For the first time this season, all five Auburn (13-5, 2-3) starters scored in double figures, led by 15 each for Alverson and Hasina Muhammad. But save for five points from Tra’cee Tanner, the backups didn’t produce, with just a total of 30 minutes played by three different reserves.
“They played very, very hard, especially our starters, who were playing a lot of minutes,” Williams-Flourney said. “We as coaches have to do a better job of managing their minutes. Our style of play doesn’t compare with them playing that many minutes.
“We just have to do a better job of getting them the rest they need, but we need to get a better bench,” Williams-Flourney added. “Our bench has to be able to give us some minutes … more recruits is what we need right now. More players is what we need right now,” Williams-Flourney said.
Muhammad, center Peyton Davis and point guard Najat Ouardad each received medical attention during the second half.
“This team will never quit,” Williams-Flourney said. “That’s not who we are, and that who we will never be, as long as I’m coach.”
Ouardad finished with 11 points, nine assists (against six turnovers), six rebounds and four steals. She and Muhammad were treated for leg cramps, though both returned to action.
“Mentally, we were all OK to manage the game, but cramping I guess is part of the game,” Ouardad said. “I had to manage that as well, but it was kind of hard to control the ball at the same time.”
The Tigers’ bid to knock off a top-ten ranked team for the first time in nearly three years was spoiled by Simmons’ hot shot, scoring 18 of her game-high 29 points in the second half while a weary Ouardad and her Tigers teammates struggled to contain the star junior.
“It’s always a disappointment if you lose,” Williams-Flourney said. “The thing about Tennessee is they score in bunches. If you make a turnover, nine times out of ten, they’re going to score off of your mistake.”
The Tigers have lost two straight for the first time this year, both to ranked opponents. The road gets no easier on the horizon, with a trip to No. 5 Kentucky looming Sunday.
“I think moving forward,” Alverson said, “we know we can compete with the top teams in the country.”
Davis and Tyrese Tanner each scored 10 for the Tigers.