Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl expected his Volunteers to follow up a big win with a slow start. That's why he issued a warning to his starting lineup.
"I anticipated that our energy would not be where it was for Kansas, and there's no excuse for that," he said. "So I had to get after them and make sure that some of my starters understood that if they did not step up physically they wouldn't be playing."
Starting center Wayne Chism heeded the warning and had 12 points, 12 rebounds and six steals as No. 9 Tennessee shook off the slow start to beat Auburn 81-55 on Thursday night.
Through the first half, Tennessee (13-2, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) looked sluggish following its 76-68 win over then top-ranked Kansas on Sunday. That's when Chism took over, fighting for rebounds and steals.
"We took their hit and we kept going," Chism said. "I said, 'Let's pick it up.' So we picked it up, got a couple of stops, a couple of big rebounds, made a couple of big shots ... and we ran on from there."
Pearl and Chism both remembered the last time the Vols upset a No. 1 team. They suffered a letdown loss to Vanderbilt three days after beating Memphis on Feb. 23, 2008. And after grabbing road wins at South Carolina and Florida last season to clinch the SEC East Division title, the Vols lost at home to Alabama to wrap up the regular season.
"I thought Auburn brought great energy, great effort and intensity at the start of the game. We didn't have the same energy," Pearl said. "I told the team that if that was the case - and human nature said it could be the case - let's not make it worse."
The teams were tied at 42 with 18:19 left when Maze hit a jumper in the lane to launch an 11-1 run that seemed to knock off the rust. The Vols started taking advantage inside, finishing with 48 points in the paint compared to the Tigers' 12.
"We got nothing from our inside game, I mean zero," Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. "We were kind of forced at that point to go out on the perimeter, and we shot the ball so poorly in the second half."
Renaldo Woolridge hit a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to give Tennessee a 53-43 lead with 13:46 left to help ice the Tigers, who have lost 10 straight games against Top Ten teams and six straight meetings with Tennessee in Knoxville.
The Tigers entered the game shooting 31.9 percent from behind the arc but relied on their perimeter shooting to build an early lead, going was 10 of 24 from 3-point range before halftime.
Auburn's fouls began piling up early though, and 10 Tennessee free throws contributed to a 16-0 run late in the first half. The Vols led 38-37 at halftime.
Tennessee shot a season-high 60.8 percent from the field while Auburn managed only 30.4 percent.
"The first half we were moving the ball as a team," Sullivan said. "Everybody was making the extra pass and we had wide-open shots. Second half - you can go back and watch the game - we took poor shots."