AUBURN, Ala. — No Hopson, but no hassle.
Tennessee senior center Brian Williams had his way inside against diminutive Auburn.
Not against Auburn, anyway.
Tennessee, playing without leading scorer Scotty Hopson, put up enough points Thursday night to comfortably roll past the Tigers, 69-56, in Auburn Arena.
UT (15-7, 5-2 SEC) didn’t need Hopson to take advantage of Auburn (8-14, 1-7), which was vertically challenged and depth-depleted even with starting center Rob Chubb, whose suspension from an undisclosed violation of team rules was announced just before the game.
The Vols never trailed, and their lead stayed at double-digits throughout the second half. Their advantage swelled to its largest point — 60-38 — midway through the second half before they backed off in the final minutes.
Junior guard Cameron Tatum picked up plenty of scoring slack with 15 points, but UT built its lead with paint buckets from senior center Brian Williams a freshman forward Tobias Harris, who combined for 29 points and 12 rebounds.
“We knew that we had the advantage inside, so we wanted to get Brian the ball and get our other inside men the ball and just beat them from the inside out,” Vols senior point guard Melvin Goins said. “It was a good overall game for our bigs. I’m just happy for those guys and glad to see them play that type of basketball.”
Williams scored 12 of his 15 points in the first half, and he pulled down five of his eight rebounds before the break.
“They didn’t have a whole lot down there, so we knew could get basically whatever we wanted,” said Williams, whose solid post play was also a huge factor in Saturday’s win at Ole Miss. “We wanted to go down low early and then open it up outside, and that’s what we did.”
Harris, whose status was somewhat questionable earlier this week because of an ankle injury suffered at Ole Miss, essentially said the same thing.
“We expected (Chubb) to play. I still don’t know why he didn’t,” Harris said. “But our whole thing was just to out-rebound them and really just get on the glass and beat them down inside, and have the inside open up the outside. When we got touches down low, they doubled down, so it was open for our shooters on the outside.
“Basically, we could punish them down there. Down low, we did whatever he wanted.”
Harris spoke with GVX247 while icing the ankle in the locker room after the game, but he and trainers said that was mostly a precautionary measure.
“I wasn’t really feeling it during the game, but now I’m feeling it a little bit,” Harris said. “I kind of just went out there and gutted it out and did what I needed to do for our team to win the game. I feel OK. It’s not too bad.”
Winning tends to lessen that postgame pain.
“Just to get a win on the road versus another team is always good,” Harris said “That’s maybe not the highest team in the SEC, but they came close against Florida and beat South Carolina. Everybody in this league’s tough. To come out with a win like this on the road, we’ll just take it and run with it.
“It was a good effort by us, and now we’ve just got to bring it to Alabama and then Kentucky and then just keep it going.”
Harris said he’ll “definitely” play in Saturday’s home game against SEC-leading Alabama (14-7, 6-1), but UT trainer Chad Newman said it’s “too soon” to know whether Hopson will be back for the Crimson Tide.
“I’m down here, and he’s up there (in Knoxville), and I’m the one making that call,” Newman joked.
The Vols certainly didn’t need Hopson against the Tigers, though. Senior guard Josh Bone started in Hopson’s place, adding eight points, three assists and two rebounds to his typically-tough defense. Skylar McBee, who also played more minutes in Hopson’s absence, struggled through an 0-for-4 shooting night but had two steals and got the better end of a few fierce collisions with Auburn players.
Tatum, who was expected to be more assertive in Hopson’s absence, scored and rebounded (seven) above his season averages.
“I tried not to think about it too much,” Tatum said. “I just tried to be more of a leader, really. I just tried to do it in all facets of the game. I tried to get my rebounding up, and make the good passes — the right passes — for assists, and just try to score whenever I had the opportunity. Whenever I had a good look, I tried to shoot it instead of turning down some of the shots I normally turn down.”
Goins was whistled for his second intentional foul in two games in Thursday’s final minutes, as replays showed officials clear evidence of his elbow near an Auburn player’s face. His Saturday offense was a foot to an Ole Miss player’s lower abdomen.
“I thought I got fouled, really, but I just caught it in an awkward position and wasn’t trying to go backcourt,” said Goins, whose infraction came close to the midcourt stripe. “I was just trying to get a little space. It was nothing intentional. I wasn’t trying to harm him or anything. I don’t even think it was that big of a deal, but they put the new rule in where any type of movement with the elbow up high is a foul ... so they made that decision.”
Perhaps Goins has been a little too physical lately — referees certainly seem to think so — but Auburn coach Tony Barbee said UT’s intensity was clearly the difference against his Tigers.
“It was a matter of two different level programs,” Barbee said. “I thought we played scared tonight. How could you be scared or another college basketball player, regardless of their reputation or ranking? Not everyone did, but a majority of our guys played scared. That’s unacceptable. Tennessee is a good team. They’re huge, and they overwhelmed us on the backboard tonight. That’s what cost us the game.
“Our defense was not very good. When you’re afraid of someone, you get tentative. We were tentative defensively, and they took it right at us.”
When asked if Auburn was intimidated by the Vols, Tigers freshman forward Allen Payne said, “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“Tennessee is a good team,” Payne said. “They’re big, they’re fast, and they didn’t even have their best player tonight in Scotty Hopson.”
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247.