Tennessee Basketball: What Rick Barnes and Players Said After Win Over Auburn

The Tennessee Volunteers take down the Auburn Tigers 92-84 on Dalton Knecht's 39 points to cap off a dominant February.
Auburn v Tennessee
Auburn v Tennessee / Eakin Howard/GettyImages

The Tennessee Volunteers played like one of the best teams in the country throughout February, going 7-1 with wins over No. 10 Kentucky and No. 11 Auburn. The Vols' 92-84 win over Auburn perfectly encapsulated how the Vols have played throughout February and why they could be legitimate national championship contenders this year.

The focus post-game was on two main categories — Dalton Knecht and physical play down low. While the Vols and Tigers battled a hard-fought, physical game from the perimeter to under the basket, Tennessee would not have won this game if its big men had not shown up in this game.

Tennessee's win over Auburn would not have been possible without Knecht's elite second-half performance. Knecht finished the game with 39 points, with 25 points coming in the last 12 minutes. Rick Barnes seemed just as amazed as we were with Knecht's second-half performance.

"What [Knecht] did in the last 12 minutes...One of the great performances that I've been able to see."

Rick Barnes

There's no doubt that Knecht's performance was legendary. It might have locked him up as the SEC Player of the Year over Alabama's Mark Sears and Kentucky's Antonio Reeves, and he cemented his name as a National Player of the Year contender.

Rebounding was another point of emphasis for Barnes coming into the game. Johni Broome is a force in the paint, so Tennessee needed Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka to bring their best. Aidoo brought enough physicality down low to limit Broome on both ends of the court. Broome finished with 23 points and 9 rebounds, but Tennessee's defense didn't allow him to take over the game.

"I thought we’d fall apart to get back in, to try to go, come up some balls. I think we gave up one or two on the free-throw blockout, which we can’t do. But we’ve harped on it enough all year and worked on it and keep talking about it and we’ve got to continue to talk about it and so we just stay consistent with it."

Rick Barnes

Barnes emphasized Aidoo and Awaka's improved play down low against one of the better big men in the SEC. It wasn't a perfect performance, but a look at what Aidoo and Awaka can do in the paint as they continue to develop into better players.

"Those guys are gonna continue to get better and better and better and we really believe that. Guarding [Broome] one-on-one, he’s as hard to guard as any post guy we played all year and Bruce [Pearl] does a good job doing things with him to roll him in there, bring him across. He’s a very good passer."

Rick Barnes

Aidoo and Awaka's development this season will be a focus point for the Vols moving forward. They might not be the best big men in the country, but if they can neutralize or win battles in the paint during tournament time, the Vols could be gearing up for a deep run in March.

Zakai Zeigler had a monumental night as well. He didn't score 30 points or have a double-double, but yesterday marked one year since he tore his ACL. He addressed this to reporters post-game but didn't have much to say about recovering from the injury and getting back to his level of play.

"God is great, man. That is all I can really say."

Zakai Zeigler

While Zeigler didn't have a dominant performance, he had a sneaky good night. Knecht gave Ziegler an A+ rating for his performance, although Zeigler did not given the fact he only shot 3-for-10 from the field. He finished the night with 9 points, 14 assists, 9 rebounds, and 4 steals.

Zeigler also wasn't too surprised Knecht dominated down the stretch, scoring 23 points in the game's final eight minutes. A reporter asked Zeigler if there was a specific moment he knew Knecht would have a special night.

"Yeah, in practice yesterday. I mean, what you guys see, I see every day, so it's not really nothing new to me. ... It's every day"

Zakai Zeigler

Most Tennessee players have the same feeling as Zeigler on Knecht. He's a hard worker, putting up over 4,000 shots a week, trying to improve his game all over the court.

Next. Dalton Knecht Takes Over to Lift Tennessee Volunteers over Auburn 92-84. Dalton Knecht Takes Over to Lift Tennessee Volunteers over Auburn 92-84. dark

Tennessee will have a few days to recover from their physical battle against Auburn. The Vols will head to Alabama on Saturday to take on the Tide at 8 PM ET / 7 PM CT. This will be another battle of two elite SEC programs, tied at the top of the SEC standings after their mid-week matchup.