Nashville, TN — Despite the 20% capacity crowd at Bridgestone Arena, it felt like tournament play in Nashville for Tennessee’s SEC Tournament semifinal matchup with Alabama. The Vols came out hot and led by as much as 15 in the second half, but turnovers plagued Tennessee as the Crimson Tide came storming back to claim a 73-68 win.
The Vols came out strong, quickly jumping out to a 9-2 lead that it would hold until the 4:02 mark in the second half.
Ironically, Tennessee built its first half lead with excellent mid range shooting, a shot Alabama coach Nate Oats doesn’t let his players take. The Vols scored 14 points on mid range jumpers in the first half, making seven-of-10 attempts.
Keon Johnson set the tone for Tennessee from the beginning, scoring 16 first half points. Johnson’s intensity and energy were crucial for the Vols and while he struggled offensively in the second half when guarded by SEC Defensive Player of the Year Herb Jones, the freshman showed the killer instinct that will have him as one of the Vols’ go-to scorers in the NCAA Tournament.
“Well, the first half my teammates, we do a great job on the defensive end which led us being able to run the court, get open transition looks, which I feel like that's the type of team we are,” Johnson said. “That's what led to the first half that I had.”
Johnson ended with 20 points, nine rebounds and five turnovers.
Tennessee held Alabama to just four-of-17 shooting from three-point range in the first half while shooting 47% from the field themselves, good enough to build a nine point halftime lead.
The Vols came out firing to open the second half, going to a 8-2 run that pushed Tennessee’s lead to a game-high 15 points.
From there, things started to fall apart for Tennessee. As often has been the case for Tennessee this season, a scoring drought hit.
Tennessee went 5:10 without scoring while turning the ball over six times in the stretch. That was all regular season SEC Champion Alabama needed, going on a 14-0 run over the stretch, pulling themselves within one with 12 minutes to play.
“I told the team at halftime, they're going to make a run,” Barnes said. “All good teams make a run.”
The turnovers were a major issue for Tennessee, especially in the second half when the Vols coughed it up 11 times.
“We got lackadaisical with the ball,” Johnson said. “It started with one and led through the whole team. I mean, those turnovers that we had, they pretty much led to points, which can't happen. We just got to take care of the ball throughout the whole game.”
Johnson’s backcourt running mate, fellow freshman Jaden Springer, finally ended the drought with a three-pointer before Alabama could claim the lead.
Springer, who totaled 18 points on seven-of-17 shooting, would help rejuvenate Tennessee with his triple, leading to a high level final 10 minutes inside Bridgestone Arena.
Once Alabama took the lead (4:02) they wouldn’t relinquish it as both teams traded baskets down the stretch.
Without John Fulkerson, who missed Saturday's game with a concussion and face fracture, the Vols struggled defensively down the stretch. Tennessee alternated playing both Uros Plavsic and Santiago Vescovi, but as the Vols continued to switch ball screens, Alabama set screens to create mismatches.
With Santiago Vescovi in, that was getting a post up for SEC Player of the Year Herb Jones. With Plavsic in, that was getting the 7-footer switched on point guard Jahvon Quinerly.
Still, Tennessee was down just one with 43 seconds left thanks to a clutch three by Yves Pons. The Vols were a stop and a score away from going to their third straight SEC Tournament championship, and Barnes adjusted, playing Davonte Gaines on defense instead of Vescovi or Plavsic.
Alabama got Gaines switched on Jones and the senior went right at the Vols’ sophomore. However, Gaines locked down and after a jumble around the rim that saw Alabama have multiple putback attempts miss, Gaines secured the rebound and was fouled, sending him to the line with 25 seconds left.
Gaines, who entered the game 10-of-16 at the line on the season, missed both, forcing Tennessee to foul.
“We put him in to do the job and he did the job,” Barnes said of Gaines. “He played great post defense. Came up with a big rebound. We knew exactly what they were going to do. We knew the other matchups we wanted to have. We knew he would fight his heart out. We knew he would guard him, absolutely he would guard Herb Jones. He did probably four different times in that one possession. He came up with it. We all feel bad for him he didn't knock those down, would have given us a chance to take the lead. But I'm proud of him because he did the job that we asked him to go in there and do. His hard work and determination got us that possession. Tough situation to put anybody in when they haven't played. That's how much confidence we have in him.”
The Vols had a chance to tie the game with a triple after Quinerly made two free throws, but Tennessee got a horrible look as Victor Bailey Jr.’s contested three fell short.
“We were looking for a three, so we had a lot of time,” Vecovi said. “We were not trying to rush a three. I mean, the main thing was me coming off and trying to get a shot off. But I just felt the guy was right behind me. Then we just tried to play it. Y'all know what happened.
Alabama would make its free throws to clinch the win and advance to tomorrow’s SEC Championship game.
Tennessee will return to action next week in the SEC Tournament.