Tennessee came into Saturday’s matchup against Alabama riding high after its win against Florida. After a strong first half, Tennessee wasn’t able to sustain its performance in the second half resulting in a 73-68 loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament semifinals.
Here are three takeaways.
Stellar first half
After a convincing wire-to-wire win over Florida on Friday, Tennessee was able to carry over its momentum to the first half of basketball against Alabama on Saturday.
Like most games for Tennessee, the defense was what it hung its hat on in the first half.
Tennessee was able to hold Alabama to just 35.3% shooting from the field and 23.5% from behind the three-point line which is an impressive feat against such a hot-shooting team.
Star players Herbert Jones and John Petty were held largely in check also. Jones had six points on two-of-eight shooting from the field along with two made free throws. Petty had just six points on two-of-six shooting from the three-point line. He also had two rebounds.
Tennessee was also able to force the Crimson Tide into 12 first half turnovers.
For as much as Tennessee was able to do to stop Alabama defensively, they had a star player produce offensively.
Keon Johnson dominated in the first half for Tennessee.
Johnson had 16 points on seven-of-10 shooting from the field along with four rebounds in 16 minutes of play.
Tennessee was able to shoot 47% from the field as a team in the first half and 33% from behind the three-point line. Shooting a manageable percentage from behind the three-point line helped Tennessee open up its offense and made Alabama not be able to cheat to the paint.
“We played well offensively, ” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We were seven for 21 from the three in the game. We fumbled the ball some. Early we were able to get in the gaps and pick up charges and so were they.”
Tennessee was able to play good defense and not foul having just four first-half personal fouls. Tennessee also outrebounded Alabama 21-19.
The all-around effort helped Tennessee carry a 40-31 lead into the half.
Second half collapse
For as good as Tennessee was in the first half, it regressed to the mean of the season in the second half.
Jaden Springer led the Vols in scoring in the second half with 10 points, but it was on just three-of-eight shooting from the field.
Johnson was held in check in the second half as he scored just four points on one-of-six shooting from the floor. He was able to grab five rebounds.
As a team, Tennessee shot just 34% from the floor and 33% from the three-point line in the second half which didn’t give Tennessee a chance to keep up with Alabama.
Tennessee had 11 second-half turnovers which kept it from getting into a rhythm offensively and would finish with 19 turnovers total.
“They (Alabama) packed the paint in on us, ” Johnson said. “We’re a driving team, so we had to get going side to side. We didn’t do that. We need to take care of the ball and stay locked in defensively.”
Alabama dominated the paint in the second half. Tennessee was only able to score 10 points in the paint in the second half compared to 20 for Alabama.
Alabama also dominated the boards with 23 rebounds compared to just 16 for Tennessee.
Tennessee was able to hold Alabama’s shooting percentages down in the second half to just 39% from the floor and 27% from behind the three-point line. The effort wouldn’t be enough though as Jones took over for Alabama.
Jones had 15 second-half points on 40% shooting from the floor and seven-of-nine shooting from the free-throw line. He also had seven rebounds and four assists.
Jones's effort helped Alabama score 42 second-half points and grab the win.
Despite the tough loss, Barnes still likes the direction his team is heading.
“I just told the guys they’re not gonna put their heads down because I won’t allow it, ” Barnes said. “I’ve been around this game a long time. I like where our team is right now. I’m not afraid of us playing any team anywhere.”
Life without Fulkerson
Tennessee was without John Fulkerson today and might be for the short future after he suffered facial injuries against Florida.
The big question surrounding Tennessee is how can they replace his minutes going forward?
Yves Pons will most likely get the start at center going forward as he did against Alabama.
Pons had seven points, five rebounds and two blocks against the Crimson Tide and was also able to close out the game efficiently against Florida,
However, who will be the first guy off the bench to take minutes?
That question might’ve been answered this week by the play and effort of Uros Plavsic.
Plavsic has not played a major role this season but during the SEC tournament, he became a reliable source for minutes off the bench for Barnes.
“Can he be big for us?” Barnes said of Plavsic. “Yes, he can. Everybody’s got to be up on deck ready to go. I think those guys know that. We came into this game fully expecting to win.”
Plavsic played 17 minutes against Alabama. He had three rebounds, two assists and four points. He was able to give Tennessee a stable defensive presence in the paint while bringing hustle and energy on the court when he came off the bench.
The emergence of Plavsic could give Tennessee another dimension to its game during the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee will wait for Selection Sunday to learn its opponent and seeding for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.