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Vols advance to 1st SEC title game since 1991

TAMPA, Fla. — Wayne Chism scored a career-high 27 points, Tyler Smith added 23 and Tennessee beat Auburn 94-85 Saturday to advance to its first Southeastern Conference championship game in 18 years.

The Volunteers (21-11) will play 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 opening 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.

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 bigger Vols.

Tennessee finished with a 44-26 rebounding advantage, which helped offset 19 turnovers. But coach Bruce Pearl’s headband-wearing team really won this game with a high-scoring first half in which Chism got hot from long range.

The Volunteers, coming off a 24-point victory against Alabama in which they missed 20 of 24 shots from behind the arc, hardly could do anything wrong from there early against Auburn.

Tennessee made 7 of 12 shots from 3-point range in the first half. Chism was the clearly feeling it. He was 4-of-7 from behind the arc and had 16 points at the break. Smith, Scotty Hopson and Bobby Maze added eight apiece in what was the wildest first half in the tournament.

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.

Just ask Auburn.

It could have been worse, too, had Tennessee not committed 13 turnovers in the first half. Auburn secured the ball much better, but didn’t shoot it nearly as well.

The Tigers missed 11 3-point attempts and four of their five free throws.

Tennessee did most of the second-half damage in the post, finishing with 46 points in the paint and 13 offensive boards.

The Vols improved to 20-1 this season when shooting better than their opponents.

Now, they have a chance to enhance their record in the SEC tournament. Tennessee hasn’t won the league tournament since 1979, and have mostly disappointment in the four-day event during Pearl’s tenure.

That could change Sunday.