Vols beat Auburn 71-63 in Pearl's return to Tennessee
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Of all the familiar sights Auburn coach Bruce Pearl encountered Saturday during his return to Tennessee, the home team's winning traits offered perhaps the biggest reminders of his own successful tenure there.
Showcasing the tenacity of Pearl's best Tennessee teams, the Volunteers came from behind in the second half to beat Auburn 71-63. Tennessee's victory spoiled Pearl's homecoming in his first matchup with the team he coached to six straight NCAA tournament appearances from 2006-11.
''Tennessee made those effort and energy plays,'' Pearl said. ''They're a very athletic team. They're quick. They're long. Their speed and quickness were able to beat us to balls. That's the way my teams were when I was at Tennessee.''
Armani Moore scored a career-high 19 points and matched a career high with 13 rebounds as Tennessee (13-7, 5-3 SEC) won an emotional game that featured 10 ties, eight lead changes and one ejection - to Auburn reserve center Trayvon Reed after a flagrant 2 foul.
Tennessee trailed 52-49 midway through the second half before going on an 11-0 run to pull ahead for good.
The loss was the fourth straight for Auburn (10-11, 2-6), representing the longest losing streak of Pearl's 20-year head coaching career.
Moore said afterward the Vols didn't focus on the fanfare surrounding Pearl's return.
''We really didn't look into all of that,'' Moore said. ''As far as we were concerned, we just knew it was another SEC game we had to win.''
But the atmosphere gave away that this wasn't just any ordinary game.
Pearl went 145-61 in six seasons at Tennessee before being fired in 2011 during an NCAA investigation that resulted in two years of probation for the Vols and a three-year show cause penalty for him. Cameras surrounded Pearl as he arrived on the court for pregame warmups and continued following him as he gave high-fives to fans in Tennessee's student section an hour before the game.
The Thompson-Boling Arena crowd chanted ''Bruce'' as Pearl walked onto the court with a blue blazer, not the orange one he wore for key games during his Tennessee career. Vols coach Donnie Tyndall got an even louder ovation as he walked onto the court.
After the game, Pearl handed out numerous handshakes and hugs to various fans before waving to the crowd on his way off the court amid another ''Bruce'' chant.
''I didn't want it any more badly than I wanted any other game,'' Pearl said. ''I didn't. I want Donnie to do well. Here's the deal, I don't want any other team in the SEC to do well other than Auburn - and Tennessee.''
Pearl's players offered a different opinion.
''Deep down, we knew how personal it was for him,'' Auburn guard KT Harrell said. ''We wanted to win it for him.''
Harrell led Auburn with 16 points. Tahj Shamsid-Deen and Antoine Mason each added 14, and Cinmeon Bowers had 13. Kevin Punter scored 17, Josh Richardson had 15 and Derek Reese added 11 for Tennessee.
Auburn: This marked Auburn's eighth consecutive loss to Tennessee. The Tigers haven't beaten Tennessee since a 78-77 victory at Auburn on Feb. 7, 2009.
Tennessee: The Vols now have a 2-2 record against former Tennessee coaches. Don DeVoe, who coached Tennessee from 1979-89, beat the Vols 75-57 while coaching Florida in 1990. Kevin O'Neill coached Tennessee from 1994-97 and split two meetings with the Vols in 2009 and 2010 while at Southern California.
Although the crowd of 18,439 - Tennessee's largest of the season - was overwhelmingly in favor of the home team, Pearl did have pockets of supporters around the arena.
On the front row behind the Auburn bench were six fans wearing T-shirts that had a picture of Pearl in the style of President Obama's famous ''Hope'' poster from the 2008 campaign. The back of their shirts had the message, ''I still bleed orange. It's just burnt now,'' a reference to the shade of orange worn by Auburn.
Tennessee football coach Butch Jones attended the game and watched part of the first half from the heart of the student section behind one basket. Lady Vols basketball coach Holly Warlick and former Vols football coach Phillip Fulmer also were at the game.
Auburn is at LSU on Thursday.
Tennessee hosts Mississippi State on Tuesday.