KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Tennessee can finally start talking about what everyone else is: the upcoming matchup with No. 1 Memphis.
The second-ranked Vols (24-2, 11-1 Southeastern Conference) cruised to an 89-70 win over Auburn on Wednesday night in their final game before traveling across the state to face their rival.
“It’s step up time now,” said Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who refused to talk about the game earlier in the week, instead insisting the Auburn Tigers were the more important Tigers. “Everybody’s going to be challenged.”
Ramar Smith scored a season-high 19 points, Tyler Smith added 13 points and grabbed 13 rebounds and JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton both had 12 points for the Vols, who extended their home winning streak to 30 games.
Ramar Smith acknowledged that Auburn was an important stepping stone before facing Memphis.
“We have to get better every game and that’s what we did tonight,” he said.
The Tigers (13-11, 3-8) outrebounded the Vols 23-20 in the first half, but couldn’t find a way to take advantage of it with 21.9 percent shooting from the field.
Frank Tolbert led Auburn with 24 points and tied a career high with 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. Quan Prowell added 21 points and Rasheem Barrett had 14 points.
Auburn kept the margin tight 10 minutes into the first half until Tennessee jumped into a 24-5 run that put the Vols up 46-20 at halftime with the help of the 57.6 percent shooting.
The Tigers, who are now 2-50 all time on the road against top 10 teams, had allowed their 12 previous opponents an average 51 percent on field goal shooting.
“They are better than anybody we have played,” Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said of Tennessee. “Their explosiveness offensively is what separates them.”
Tennessee also took advantage of the free-throw line, shooting 75 percent.
The Vols expanded their lead to 74-43 with 9:02 to go on a Chris Lofton 3-pointer. Lofton moved into fifth place in the NCAA record book with 402 career 3-point goals.
Tolbert said Auburn couldn’t compare to Tennessee’s depth.
“For us it’s tough, because we only have six, seven scholarship players and play only five or six,” he said. “They’ve got fresh bodies coming at us and its hard to try to keep up with them.”
But the Vols’ bench had their own struggles.
Auburn trailed by 26 points with just under six minutes to go with Tennessee playing mostly reserves.
The Tigers launched a 15-0 streak that ended on a Prowell jumper with 2:06 left, prompting Pearl to return his starters to the floor.
“I was disappointed with the way we were playing with the reserves in the game late in the second half, that is why I put the starters back in,” Pearl said. “I am not worried about hurt feelings. I’m worried about securing the win.”
Pearl said his bench will have to improve their play against Memphis and next week when the Vols travel to Vanderbilt.
“We will not have more challenging games than these next two coming up on the road,” he said.