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Auburn coach Bruce Pearl on Dalton Knecht, “…he’ll go down as one of the all-time greats.”

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Bruce Pearl confided in a confidant that he was confident in Auburn’s chances of upsetting No. 4 Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena Wednesday night.

Pearl’s gut feelings are usually spot on.

But he wasn’t counting on a gut punch from Tennessee’s dynamic three-level, game-altering, can-you-believe-that-shot Dalton Knecht.

With Tennessee down by eight with 12:17 left in the game, Knecht took over, scoring 25 of Tennessee’s last 37 points. He delivered a career-high 39 overall, lifting the Vols (22-6, 12-3 SEC) to a 92-84 victory before a raucous sellout crowd of 22,547 that included Grant Williams and CJ Watson.

The victory kept Tennessee tied for first place with Alabama, a 103-88 victor at Ole Miss, for the SEC regular-season title with three games left.

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“Obviously, Dalton was terrific,” said Pearl, the former UT coach. “He was really hard to stop.”

Pearl put big man Johni Broome on Knecht. When that didn’t work, Pearl tried to deny Knecht the ball, then threw a double team and a triple team at the SEC’s leading scorer in conference games only.

Knecht hit from 3-point range, drove to the basket for a dunk, made layups and handed out assists. There was no stopping one of UT’s best-ever three-level scorers.

“We felt like when Tennessee wins, they typically win when everybody is contributing,” Pearl said. “He dispelled that tonight.”

Pearl said he would vote for Knecht as SEC Player of the Year if UT wins the regular-season crown. He’ll vote for Mark Sears if Alabama takes the title. He didn’t say what he would do if the two teams tie for first. But you would think he’d lean toward Knecht.

“With his size and versatility,” Pearl said of the fifth-year senior transfer, “I can’t think of anybody quite like him. If they win the league and advance in the (NCAA) Tournament, he’ll go down as one of the all-time greats (at UT).”

No doubt. Knecht has lifted the hopes of many in the Vol Nation who aren’t confident that coach Rick Barnes can get UT past the Sweet 16. He’s an elite scorer who can turn deficits into decisive wins. He can end scoring droughts. He can confound defenses with not just his scoring ability, but his passing when double teamed.

“I’ve had a couple (of great scorers),” Barnes said, “but not many. Not many can do what he did tonight.”

With Auburn surging to a 63-55 lead midway through the second half, Knecht caught fire, nailing a 3, then a dunk, then two free throws, then another 3.

“He got it going,” Barnes said, “and we said, `We’ll get it to him.’”

Barnes spread the court to give Knecht more space to manoeuvre. It worked. And Auburn had no answer.

Knecht thwarted Auburn’s opportunity for an upset; the Tigers closed as a 7.5-point underdog.

Pearl, who had won seven of the last nine against UT, noted that Auburn made nine 3s, shot over 40% from beyond the arc, and scored 84 points.

“That should be enough to win,” Pearl said. “Our defense definitely let us down.”

And Knecht lifted Tennessee up.

Knecht got help from center/forward Jonas Aidoo, who scored 10 of his 14 points in the first half.

Point guard Zakai Ziegler was horrible at times. He had four first-half turnovers, missed the front end of two one-and-ones and ended up 0-for-6 on 2-point attempts. But he hit a key 3 to end the half for a 44-40 UT lead, went 3-for-3 from 3-point range and made four free throws in the final 2:21 to help put the game away.

His final stat line: 17 points, nine assists, four turnovers (although he actually had five).

Ziegler gave himself a grade of B-.

Knecht gave himself an A-. His performance included 5-of-8 from 3-point range and three steals.

“When I see a shot go in,” Knecht said, “the basket looks a lot bigger.”

Tennessee once again got little production from two fifth-year seniors. Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James combined for 4 points in 46 minutes and shot a combined 2-for-5 from the field. But Vescovi had a key layup late after a missed 3 and James blocked four shots. And they gathered 10 total rebounds.

Barnes said Vescovi and James each made winning plays.

But the guy that won the game was Knecht.

And he’s capable of helping Tennessee win more games in postseason play.

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