By Jimmy Hyams
A stranger approached Zakai Ziegler wearing his No. 5 jersey after Tennessee’s pulsating 67-62 victory Saturday over No. 3 Auburn at sold out Thompson-Boling Area.
“I just gave him a hug,’’ Ziegler said. “I didn’t know who he was.’’
It was Tony Vitello, Tennessee’s baseball coach.
Perhaps you can forgive the euphoric Ziegler for not knowing Vitello, for this was a moment of unbridled celebration.
It was a time to celebrate Tennessee’s third win over a top five team this season.
A time to celebrate moving into a three-way tie for second place in the SEC, just one game behind Auburn.
A time to celebrate the first win over former UT coach Bruce Pearl in seven outings.
A time to celebrate the emergence of five-star big man Brandon Huntley-Hatfield.
A time to celebrate a 15-0 home record in front of a raucous crowd that coach Rick Barnes called the best fans in the country.
When Ziegler met the media postgame, having scored 13 points and recording three steals, the true freshman from New York was wearing a grin from ear to ear.
“I’m gonna be smiling a lot,’’ Ziegler said, “because I’m super happy. I love winning.’’
Super senior John Fulkerson was so happy, he directed the student section in a chorus of cheers.
Several Vols made their way into the stands to celebrate with the joyous patrons, some of whom camped out the night before to ensure a good seat in the student section.
“They’re appreciative of our fan base,’’ Barnes said of his players.
Thompson-Boling Arena was a rocking scene, and anyone wearing orange and white was soaking it in.
“I do believe we’ve got the best home-court advantage (in the nation),’’ Barnes said. “I do.’’
That was hard to argue after Tennessee rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit, took an 11-point lead with four minutes left after Auburn missed 12 consecutive shots during one stretch, then held on for dear life after a few turnovers made the final score closer than it should have been.
Two late errors cut UT’s lead from 63-54 with 1:15 left to 63-50 with 58 seconds left.
Kennedy Chandler hit a floater and Santiago Vescovi swished two free throws to seal the deal.
“I knew we’d have to score again,’’ Barnes said after Auburn sliced UT’s lead to a nerve-wracking one possession.
Things got so hairy for UT late, Barnes went to true freshman Huntley-Hatfield to in-bounds the ball twice in the final minute, hoping his height and decision-making would at least allow UT to get the ball in play.
It worked. The 6-foot-10 Huntley-Hatfield found the 6-9 Fulkerson twice to avoid further mayhem.
That’s not all Huntley-Hatfield did. He scored five points, hitting a key three to ignite a 17-2 run in the second half.
“The 3-pointer felt good,’’ Huntley-Hatfield said. “I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t know we were down 11.’’
He also had eight rebounds and two blocks as UT’s four bigs helped offset Auburn’s brilliant Jabari Smith (27 points) and shot-blocking machine Walker Kessler (four swats).
Fulkerson, bothered by a hip pointer, had five points and nine rebounds.
Uros Plavsic had six points and seven rebounds.
And Jonas Aidoo had five rebounds.
In total, UT’s bigs had 17 points and 29 rebounds as the Vols dominated the boards 54-30.
Vescovi led UT with 14 points. He also had five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Chandler added 13 points. Josiah-Jordan James had 10 points and nine rebounds.
Tennessee (21-7, 12-4) has won 10 of its last 11 games and has two games left to catch Auburn (25-4, 13-3). UT visits Georgia on Tuesday then hosts Arkansas on Saturday.
Barnes said he did something he’d never done during the course of a game. He huddled his team and told them if they “turned it up on defense’’ it would “get the crowd into it.’’
While Tennessee’s victory was a moment to cherish, Barnes expressed his long-standing disdain for fans chanting “overrated,’’ which the UT faithful aimed at Auburn at the end of the game.
“I’ve never understood that,’’ Barnes said. “You have a great quality win over a team that is not overrated and your fans act like you beat nobody. We just beat a top five team and they’re not overrated. it’s diminishing a great win against outstanding team. … Give us credit. We just beat an outstanding basketball team.’’
The players’ postgame celebration validated that.