NASHVILLE— Needing to improve its record and morale, Tennessee snapped out of its funk with an offensive performance that players and coach Rick Barnes had been waiting for all year.
The Volunteers' reward is another day in the Southeastern Conference tournament against a familiar rival.
Armani Moore scored 22 points, Detrick Mostella added 17 and 12th-seeded Tennessee shot a season-best 59 percent from the field to pummel No. 13 seed Auburn 97-59 Wednesday night in the SEC tournament opener. Next up in Thursday's second round is in-state rival and No. 5 seed Vanderbilt, a matchup that should provide the Vols plenty of motivation.
They'll certainly be hard pressed to top their season best in points and biggest margin of victory in the SEC tournament.
“I don't think you ever go into a game thinking you're going to beat someone by that margin,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We didn't think that. We just talked about execution. And it really got down to an attitude that we simply, for the last couple of days in practice, we have competed.”
That intensity certainly paid off in the box score.
After failing to break 40 percent shooting while splitting two previous meetings this season against the Tigers, the Volunteers (14-18) seemingly couldn't miss this time around. They hit 12 of their first 16 in the second half alone en route to making 34 of 58 from the field.
Pretty impressive considering Tennessee's previous shooting best was 53 percent in November against Army. In fact, the Vols hadn't shot above 50 percent until Wednesday.
“We just came up there and starting shooting with confidence,” said senior Derek Reese, who had nine points and 11 rebounds. “Everyone came out there (and were) just shooting with confidence, just going all out.”
Tennessee did it quickly, racing to a 10-0 lead and stretched the gap to as many as 41 points in ending a four-game losing streak. Devon Baulkman made two 3-pointers in that fast start and finished with four 3s and 16 points for Tennessee, which made 11 of 25 from behind the arc.
T.J. Dunans scored 17 points and Tyler Harris 14 for Auburn (11-20), which shot just 30 percent in losing by its largest margin to Tennessee in series history.
“Tennessee just got off to a great start,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said, “and they were offensively able to do pretty much what they wanted through the whole game.”
Tennessee's dual mission was ending its slide and moving on without leading scorer Kevin Punter Jr. after right foot surgery. Some days off to regroup and recharge apparently helped, and Baulkman quickly made sure the Vols' season lasted another day. Moore and Mostella combined for 24 first-half points to help Tennessee lead 44-25 at halftime, and the Vols didn't let up on either end of the floor.
“Once you look up and see that scoreboard and you see that those guys aren't scoring as much, that leads over to confidence on the offensive side and gives us confidence,” said Moore, who made 10 of 13 from the field.