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Tennessee Basketball win vs. Auburn high a mark for SEC play, low point for refs

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College basketball is a cesspool of horrendous play and even more horrendous officiating. As a result, when you get a rare moment of superb play, like we saw with Tennessee Basketball and Auburn Wednesday, it’s a major disappointment when officiating derails it.

With both teams coming into the game at 21-6, the Vols, ranked No. 4 in both polls, beat the Tigers, ranked No. 11 in both polls, 92-84. It was a matchup with huge implications for the conference championship, as UT came in already tied for first in the SEC and one game ahead of AU.

Then there’s the Bruce Pearl storyline, as his return to Knoxville, Tenn., is every year. Gameplay in Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center lived up to the billing. In a back and forth matchup, nobody ever led by double digits the whole time.

Although Tennessee Basketball controlled most of the game, Auburn built a 63-55 lead with 12 minutes to go. That’s when Dalton Knecht, the best player on the court, stepped up for the Vols. Knecht scored the next 11 points and 23 of the Vols’ next 27 points to put them firmly in control, up 82-77 with four minutes to go.

For the game, Knecht proved he has a case for National Player of the Year, scoring 39 points on 12-of-21 shooting, including 5-of-8 from three and 10-of-12 from the free throw line. Seeing the best player in the SEC take over in a crucial SEC game is only part of the high mark of this night, though.

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Zakai Zeigler, the best point guard in the league, also proved his value. Logging heavy minutes to this point, his energy was tested early by the tempo that Pearl’s team runs, and he did have four turnovers while shooting just 3-of 12 from the field and at one point 4-of-8 from the free throw line.

Still, Zeigler, as a point guard should found his ways to be effective, dishing out nine assists, and he closed the deal when needed, hitting his final four free throws to finish 8-of-12 and keep Tennessee Basketball firmly in control. He ended up with 17 points on the night.

UT is also known for its interior presence, and Jonas Aidoo made his presence known with 14 points, seven boards and a block. Tobe Awaka added nine off the bench. Then Rick Barnes’ defense showed up. Knecht had three steals, Santiago Vescovi added two, and Josiah-Jordan James was a major force by blocking four shots.

Elite play wasn’t just on the Vols’ side either, though. Auburn got what it needed from its best player, Johni Broome, who had 23 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Chad Baker-Mazara added 13 points, and Jaylin Williams added 12 off the bench, so their three leading scorers all hit double figures.

Then there’s just the efficiency of the game. In an up-tempo, controlled chaos battle, Auburn shot 9-of-22 from three and 75 percent from the free throw line. The Vols shot 9-of-17 from three and 77.1 percent from the free throw line. Add in the rocking crowd, and it was everything great about the sport.

Except for the officials.

SEC officiating has consistently been bad this year, but it reached a new level in this one. They were so inconsistent that when they got a call right, not calling James for a foul, Bruce Pearl lit into one of the refs, getting a technical, and it was clearly based on all their previous mistakes.

Auburn shot 28 free throws, and the Vols shot 35. Aidoo fouled out, Vescovi played the whole game in foul trouble, and Auburn had two starters in foul trouble down the stretch. It was over-officiated primarily in the first half, and when the game play stepped up, that showed.

Something must be done about this. College basketball has effectively changed the rules in the right direction to improve the game play, and teams like the Vols and Tigers, not relying as heavily on one-and-dones but filled with NBA talent, can really showcase their abilities.

On the other hand, officials in the sport and particularly in the SEC, remain an extremely low point for the league. How many times do they have to miss basic calls both ways and take over extremely well-played games before the people running the sport step in and address?

Regardless, Tennessee Basketball now improves its league record to 12-3 and will visit the Alabama Crimson Tide Saturday, while Auburn falls to 10-5 in the conference and will host the Mississippi State Bulldogs Saturday. Also, after losing six straight to him, Barnes has now won three of four against Pearl.

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