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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Malik Dunbar went down hard after Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield chased him down from behind and sent him crashing to the ground early in the second half. Four teammates and a trainer sprinted to where he lay under the basket.
Dunbar popped up with a huge grin across his face.
And why wouldn’t he? Auburn led Tennessee by 13. The two free throws he hit after the timeout gave the Tigers their largest lead at 15 points. Bruce Pearl’s team won by 20 points against its coach’s former school — 84-64.
For the second time in program history and first time since 1985, the Tigers are the SEC Tournament champions.
They weren’t the favorite to win Sunday. Not by a long shot. Tennessee entered the game still angry about its 84-80 loss at Auburn Arena eight days earlier that cost it a chance to claim a share of the SEC regular-season title. Volunteers fans made up at least 95 percent of the crowd inside Bridgestone Arena.
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That crowd was raucous at the tip. By the time the final minutes were ticking off the clock, it had quieted to a dull murmur. Auburn didn’t just beat Tennessee on Sunday — it dominated one of the 10 best teams in the country in almost every facet of the game.
Here are three takeaways from the victory:
The Tigers’ recipe worked to perfection
Auburn has been at its best this season when it hits 3s, forces turnovers and holds opponents to under 50-percent shooting.
Check, check, check.
The Tigers hit 15-of-40 attempts from beyond the arc, scored 21 points off 17 Volunteers turnovers and held the higher-seeded team to 45.1-percent shooting from the floor.
Give J’Von McCormick a game ball
A day after playing the hero against Florida, Jared Harper was quiet. Very quiet. He sat the final 17-plus minutes of the first half with two fouls. He finished the game with nine points on 1-for-11 shooting.
McCormick, the team’s backup point guard, steadied the ship in the first half — Auburn outscored Tennessee 28-18 with Harper off the floor.
McCormick finished with five points and four assists in a season-high 23 minutes.
No one should want to face Auburn in the NCAA tournament
The Tigers didn’t look like much of a threat this time last season. They had a great regular season that ended with a share of the SEC regular-season title, but they entered the postseason having lost three of their final five games.
They bowed out of the SEC tournament with an 18-point loss to Alabama in the quarterfinals, then the NCAA tournament with a 31-point loss to Clemson in the second round.
But that team had a hobbled Bryce Brown and no Anfernee McLemore, Austin Wiley or Danjel Purifoy. This team has 10 healthy rotation players and is as hot as anybody in the country.
Sunday’s win over Tennessee was Auburn’s eighth straight since a 27-point loss at Kentucky on Feb. 23, and six of those have come on the road or at neutral sites.
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There’s no telling how far the Tigers will go in the NCAA tournament, but you can be sure no team wants to face them right now.
Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale