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Dalton Knecht used Rick Barnes' plan to burn down Auburn

Dalton Knecht kept it simple.

THE Tennessee basketball The guard had a defender in front of him. The other eight players were on the opposite half of the field thanks to his teammates clearing space. The decision was easy.

Knecht used a crossover and hesitant dribble to get past Auburn's Johni Broome and into the open lane. He dove, swung from the rim and gave a little punch when he came back beaming in the middle of the last, best performance of his season at Tennessee.

“What he did in the last 12 minutes (is) one of the great performances I've seen,” the Vols coach said. Rick Barnes said.

This particular play in Knecht's unforgettable 12-minute spurt was born from a minor but brilliant adjustment in the Vols' offense – and Tennessee used it repeatedly. That helped ignite Knecht's 25 points in 12 minutes among his season-high 39 points to beat Auburn 92-84 at Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center.

How Rick Barnes tweaked Tennessee's offense to open up Dalton Knecht

Knecht drifted into the corner with No. 4 Tennessee (22-6, 12-3 SEC) holding a two-point lead with less than seven minutes remaining Wednesday against No. 11 Auburn (21-7, 10- 5).

He waited for Tobe Awaka and Josiah-Jordan James to join him.

Barnes had made a change during the under-8 media timeout and this was the decision implemented. He changed a basic set of Tennessee's offense that has three low players near the baseline and two high players outside the 3-point line. This normally gives Knecht – or whoever – the opportunity to start in the middle under the hoop and use a two-way screen.

“Instead of giving him a chance to come out one way or the other, we moved him to one side and told both guys to go get him open,” Barnes said. “We really gave him two-thirds of the court to try to open it up and get the ball. He did it. Then it's up to him to make the moves and shots he thinks he has.

Knecht has done this time and time again. He raced down the baseline on the first play, using a screen from Awaka to connect with Broome. He pushed aside another Awaka screen to completely isolate him. He scored a 3-pointer on Broome.

He used it differently the next time, splitting screens and connecting with Broome. He passed by him for a dunk.

“It just gave me a lot more space to sort of isolate myself,” Knecht said. “Just to give me the whole side, so if I want a screen to call a screen. It worked.”

The Vols used the set eight times in 10 possessions over the final eight minutes. Knecht moved five times from the left and three times from the right. He was 3-for-4 on shots outside of the adjusted set with seven points. UT had 13 total points on possessions, pulling away from the Tigers.

“If people want to stick to shooters, it's going to give him too much space to operate and he'll get a basket when he wants to,” guard Zakai Zeigler said. “It’s going to work anyway.”

Dalton Knecht had his best half for Tennessee basketball

Knecht walked to the scorer's table with a towel on his shoulders, looking like a fighter joining the ring. Barnes had called a timeout to get Knecht back in the game with 2:45 left after giving him a brief respite to catch his breath.

The senior touched the ball on 17 of Tennessee's final 18 half-court possessions. He scored on 11 of them. He made nine field goals in those 18 possessions and made 11 shots.

“There’s not a lot of these guys that can do it like he did,” Barnes said.

Tennessee turned to Knecht when it trailed by eight early in the second half. He scored twice against Auburn's zone defense, hitting a 3-pointer then using a baseline cut for a dunk.

He felt good in the first half after back-to-back shots. He was locked in in the second half, battling against Auburn players pulling his jersey, triple teams and more to produce at a ridiculous rate.

Knecht had 27 points in the second half, surpassing his previous standout halves at North Carolina, Mississippi State and Georgia. Wednesday was his sixth 20-point half and his best yet. It was also his sixth 30-point game and his fifth in SEC play, setting him up for SEC Player of the Year honors, All-American honors and putting his name in the national player of the year conversation.

“In the end, we were just spacing out and trying to give him room to operate,” Barnes said.

It was that simple.

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at michael.wilson@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you like Mike's coverage, consider a digital subscription this will allow you to access all of this.

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