Tennessee basketball fans leaving early to beat the traffic lucked out. The Vols' late lead was actually safe this time.
The Tennessee Vols defeated the Auburn Tigers, 78-67 on Wednesday night in Thompson-Boling Arena for the fifth win in their last six appearances and the 50th career victory for head coach Cuonzo Martin.
Each of UT's five starters finished in double figures for the first time in nearly two years.
"It helps when you have balance like that in scoring the ball," Martin said after the game. "Any time you are shooting over 50 percent from the field, it helps you."
The Vols held a double-digit lead on five occasions and never trailed in the contest. Despite that, the pesky Tigers gave UT all it could handle and kept the game interesting until the final whistle.
Auburn cut the deficit to two points in the second half and trailed by just five with less than three minutes left. But a repeat of Saturday's heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M wasn't in the cards.
Senior guard Jordan McRae was a big reason why. He had 14 of his 21 points in the second half, hit five free throws in the last 1:04 and seemed to demand the ball in crunch time.
"At the end of the game," McRae said, "I really want the ball for our team, to shoot the free throws at the end, so I was just trying to make sure I got it."
With Auburn guards KT Harrell and Chris Denson — who combined for 39 points — slicing through the Vol defense, however, it would take much more than free throws to seal the win.
UT needed defensive stops, and it got them. Auburn missed four of its last five shots, and the Volunteer defense refused to let the tight lead slip away.
"In the huddle, we said, 'how many stops can we get in a row?'" senior forward Jeronne Maymon said. "That was our main focus — to go out there and get stops."
Once again, Josh Richardson flexed his offensive muscle Wednesday night with 15 points on 7-for-11 shooting.
Richardson made Auburn pay for the Vols' first points, when the Tigers left Richardson unguarded from the perimeter and he hit a 3-pointer.
As long as Auburn left him open, Richardson — who had 13 of his 15 in the first half — was going to take it.
"Jordan (McRae) came up to me and was like, 'if they keep leaving you open, shoot it every time,'" Richardson said.
"I was like, 'alright, you don't have to tell me twice.'"
The Vols came into Wednesday's game averaging 16 turnovers per game in conference play, and hardly helped that stat against the Tigers.
UT turned it over 10 times in the first half, the last of which led to an Auburn buzzer-beating 3-pointer at halftime which made it a 33-28 Volunteer lead at the break.
In total, the Vols finished with 15 turnovers. Martin thought his team wasted a big opportunity to put Wednesday's win away a bit earlier.
"We have to limit those turnovers," the third-year coach said. "You have to give yourself a chance to dominate games, and we're not helping ourselves turning the ball over."
Tennessee will take its much-needed, morale-boosting win into Rupp Arena, where the Vols will take on the No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday at noon.
McRae – the Vols' leading scorer – said he is looking forward to the challenge of his last game in one of college basketball's most storied venues.
"It's fun, you know, playing in a hostile environment," McRae said.
McRae paused. He forgot one key detail.
"It's only fun if you win."