Tennessee basketball opened SEC play with a 73-68 loss to No. 19 Alabama on the road at Coleman Coliseum.
The Vols hung close with the Crimson Tide while shorthanded, but eventually fell in the final minutes as Alabama drained some key shots and Tennessee whiffed on a couple of its own. The Vols are now 1-1 in true road environments this season after downing Colorado in early December.
Here are three takeaways from Tennessee’s third straight loss to Alabama.
Vols battle without Fulkerson and Chandler
Tennessee was without the services of a couple top players in point guard Kennedy Chandler and forward John Fulkerson Wednesday night against the Crimson Tide.
The absence of Tennessee’s two best players made a tough road game against a top-20 team that much tougher. Junior forward Olivier Nkamhoua stepped up in Fulkerson’s place, dropping a team-high 15 points with 9 rebounds.
“We didn’t make a big deal about it,” Barnes said. “We said this is what we have, we’re gonna go play. We believe in these guys.”
“This is an opportunity for these guys to get some more minutes.”
The Vols got decent play from its backcourt, seeing Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler combine for 24 points in facilitating roles.
Zeigler saw the most action he has all season. The 5-foot-9 freshman logged 27 minutes on the court and dropped 11 points while dishing out 4 assists.
Both Zeigler and Vescovi found themselves in foul trouble late, a reality that stalled Tennessee as Vescovi had to sit out time in the late stages of the game.
“When Santi got his fourth foul and he sat for 2-3 minutes, we needed him,” Barnes said. “That was a critical part.”
Bailey earns crucial minutes over Powell in final minutes
Senior guard Victor Bailey Jr. struggled in the late stages of the second half while earning minutes over Auburn transfer Justin Powell.
Following a lead change favoring the Crimson Tide, Zeigler found Bailey in the corner for a great look to take the lead with under 30 seconds remaining – a look that rattled off the iron and into the hands of Alabama freshman guard JD Davison.
Minutes earlier, Bailey had missed another open three off a great dish as Powell, shooting at a 41% clip from deep this season, looked on from the bench.
The answer as to why Bailey was favored in that crucial situation was easy to answer for Coach Barnes.
“We need Justin to want to really lock in defensively,” Barnes said. “He’s capable of doing it. Tonight, he had some breakdowns on the defensive end, that’s why we were taking him out. (Alabama is) a team that can get on a run.”
“I told him. We need him on the court, but he’s gotta play both ends of it.”
Powell played 15 minutes to Bailey’s 20.
Shots don’t fall for Tennessee
Tennessee had another off night from the field Wednesday evening.
The Vols shot 35% and 24% from deep, marking their worst margin of the season since losing in overtime to Texas Tech in early December.
Alabama didn’t fare well from the floor either, thanks in part to Tennessee’s stifling defense – especially in the first half. When shots did start falling for the Crimson Tide, the Vols were pressed to find a leader to match Alabama’s late rally.
That’s where the absence of Fulkerson really hurt the Vols. The Tennessee native had just led the Vols over No. 6 Arizona with a big performance in the final five minutes of game time.
The NCAA Tournament selection committee will take Fulkerson and Chandler's absence into account, but Tennessee's lack of consistency from the floor could be worrisome to their resume come March.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Barnes said. “I think they fought, just didn’t score when we had a chance to do it at times. Missed a couple shots we would like to make.”
“We were right there. We didn’t finish it.”