No. 7 Tennessee dropped its first game of the season Saturday as a poor offensive performance compounded with hot Alabama three-point shooting gave the Crimson Tide a 71-63 win.
“We just weren’t good,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “We weren’t good. We got exactly what we deserved.”
Tennessee wasn’t crisp out of the gates, struggling on the offensive end in multiple facets in the first half. The Vols shot just 32% from the field and 25% from three-point range while recording seven turnovers.
“Offensively, we were terrible to start the game,” Barnes said. “We turned it over three times to start it. A travel call, falling over ourselves and Santi(ago Vescovi) gets stripped, but give Alabama all the credit.”
Additionally, Tennessee made just five of its nine free throws before the break (17-of-26 on the game), a second straight bad night at the charity stripe from the team that led the SEC in free throw percentage to start the week.
Assisting in some of Tennessee’s offensive woes was freshman guard Jaden Springer going down with an ankle injury midway through the first half. The 11.7 point per game scorer came up limping after shooting a jump shot in the crowded lane.
“We missed him a lot,” Josiah Jordan James said of Springer. “Especially on both sides of the ball we missed him, but I talked to him after the game and he’s in good spirits. Hopefully we won’t miss him for too much longer.”
Springer was ruled day-to-day with an ankle sprain, Tennessee SID Tom Satkowiak informed the media postgame.
Despite the poor shooting, Tennessee was able to hold a lead over Alabama for 12 minutes in the opening half. It was the middle eight minutes that turned the tide for Alabama that the Vols were unable to hold off.
With Yves Pons in foul trouble Tennessee had to turn to different options in the post. Alabama wasn’t a good matchup for E.J. Anosike, he played just 10 minutes, so Barnes had to get creative playing Josiah Jordan James at the four at length and giving Drew Pember his first non garbage time minutes.
“I think Yves not being in the game really hurt us,” Barnes said. “He’s a difference maker out there and he had a couple calls that went against him where I thought he really made good plays.”
Having to stretch the rotation cost Tennessee, with the Crimson Tide getting good matchups for guards Jahvon Quinerly and John Petty to drive the basketball. A strong push in the half’s final minutes gave Alabama a 31-29 lead at the intermission.
Alabama pushed it to another level after the break, opening the second half on a 17-5 run that gave the Crimson Tide a 14-point advantage. Tennessee held the high flying Alabama offense to two-of-nine three point shooting in the first half but the Crimson Tide came out of the locker room on fire making their first five threes, all before the under 16 minute timeout.
That hot three-point shooting continued throughout the second half as Alabama hit eight-of-11 triples to end the game 50% from three point range. Combine that with Tennessee’s putrid 19% shooting from deep and you begin filling in the pieces that made the Crimson Tide’s upset win possible.
Tennessee was able to put some stops together thanks to a spectacular five block second half performance from Pons, and two-of-six free throw shooting from Alabama in the game’s final minutes.
“We had momentum, ” Pons said. “Alabama gave us a lot of opportunities to get back in the game in the second half. We didn’t take them. We need to get better. We have the leadership to learn from this and bounce back. I am positive we’ll be fine.”
Still, Tennessee’s offense didn’t have enough in the tank to mount a real rally as the Crimson Tide held on to improve to 2-0 in SEC play as the Vols dropped to 1-1.
Victor Bailey Jr. and Santiago Vescovi led the Vols in scoring with 16 and 13 points respectively, though neither were efficient, totaling the 29 combined points on 29 combined shots.
Senior John Fulkerson failed to give Tennessee the strong minutes they’re accustomed to getting from the Kingsport native. Fulkerson scored just seven points with three-of-eight free throwing shooting as Barnes left the southpaw on the bench in winning time.
Tennessee returns to action Wednesday night when they host Arkansas to Thompson-Boling Arena. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on ESPN2.