March 14, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Wayne Chism signed with Tennessee thinking he would get a chance to play in multiple Southeastern Conference championship games.
His first two league tournaments ended in disappointment, with the Volunteers failing to get past the second round.
Now, he will get his chance.
Chism scored a career-high 27 points, Tyler Smith added 23 and Tennessee beat Auburn 94-85 Saturday to advance to its first SEC championship game in 18 years.
"I've played in the tournament three times and came up short a lot," Chism said. "To finally play on a Sunday, that's very good."
The headband-wearing Volunteers (21-11) will face surging Mississippi State in the final. The Bulldogs are 7-1 against teams from the conference's Eastern Division, with the one loss coming at Tennessee in late February.
The Vols can only hope to play as well as they did against Auburn, especially in the first half.
Tennessee shot 62 percent from the field and 58 percent from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes and opened up a 14-point lead. The Tigers (22-11) cut it to 55-50 early in the second half, but the Vols pulled away down the stretch with dunks and free throws.
Coach Bruce Pearl's team has now won five of six, four of them away from home, and is starting to look like the group everyone expected to see when the season began.
"We're coming together as a team and that's the biggest thing we need to be focusing on," Chism said. "We're staying together and playing with passion out there."
Auburn had been the league's hottest team, having won nine of its last 10 games and making a strong case for an NCAA tournament bid. But the Tigers, coming off a late-night victory against Florida, were overmatched against the bigger, more athletic Volunteers.
Korvotney Barber led Auburn with 24 points and nine rebounds. Rasheem Barrett added 18, and Tay Waller chipped in 17. The Tigers found plenty of ways to score, but they had a tough time rebounding against the Chism and his teammates.
The Vols finished with a 44-26 advantage on the boards, which helped offset 19 turnovers. But they really won this game with a high-scoring first half in which Chism got hot from long range.
"When they score like that, shoot the ball like that, I think they're a top-10 basketball team," Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said.
Tennessee, coming off a 24-point victory against Alabama in which they missed 20 of 24 shots from behind the arc, looked like a completely different team against Auburn.
Tennessee made 7 of 12 shots from 3-point range in the first half. Chism was clearly feeling it. He was 4-of-7 from behind the arc and had 16 points at the break.
"Wayne came out shooting like C-Lo today," Smith said, referring to former teammate and the league's all-time leading 3-point shooter Chris Lofton. "He was coming down the court just letting it go. I said, 'Hey, he hit his first two. Give Wayne the ball."'
Chism hit from the top of the key, from the wing, even with a hand in his face.
"When he's on fire like that out there, it certainly presents a lot of problems because you're not used to defending that at the (center) position," Lebo said.
Tennessee's hot start was uncharacteristic for a team that has struggled to shoot all season. But when the Vols do make shots, they're almost unbeatable. They improved to 20-1 this season when shooting better than their opponents.
The Tigers finished 10 of 31 from 3-point range, but it wasn't enough. Auburn's concern now is its postseason fate. The Tigers believe they did enough to garner an NCAA berth, but they won't know for sure until Sunday night.
"We deserve to be in," Lebo said. "We've played our last 10, 11 games with everything to lose, all right. And it's been emotionally draining on the kids. How can it not be? It's been emotionally draining on everybody, but it's been a heck of a ride. ... They gave me everything that they could possibly give me."
Lebo also used his postgame news conference to take a shot at critics who say the league doesn't deserve even close to the five berths its received in each of the last 12 years.
"The SEC, as much as it's been bashed, I'm not so sure we're even going to get the automatic qualifier," Lebo joked. "They may even take that from us this year. I mean, my Lord."
Tennessee knows it's already locked up a spot in the NCAA tournament, maybe even a high seed. But the Vols want to focus on getting a championship, one that has eluded them since 1979.
"Staying here and playing on Sunday is great," Chism said. "That's what I came to this school for, to win the championship, and I'm going to play for one (Sunday)."