The loss dropped Alabama, ranked 25th in the nation, to 19-8 overall and 6-7 in Southeastern Conference play, which is third place in the SEC Western Division. More important, it was Alabama's last chance for its only quality road victory, a category that plays big in consideration by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Alabama returns home Saturday to sold-out Coleman Coliseum for a 4 p;m. game against Auburn. The Tide will be trying to avenge an 81-57 rout suffered at the hands of the Tigers in Auburn earlier this season.
Had Alabama been able to pull out a victory in Knoxville, it would have been because of the play of some unlikely heroes. Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried said after the game that he is "getting tired of having to send a message" to the starters this late in the season, but that's what he did with the Tide trailing by eight points with about 15 minutes to play. Gottfried took all his starters off the floor and a team of true freshmen Mikhail Torrence, Justin Tubbs, and Demetrius Jemison, along with redshirt freshman Yamene Coleman and junior college transfer Mykal Riley brought the Tide back into the lead.
Ron Steele was unable to play much of the game because of "sore knees," a reoccurrence of a season-long problem, but the other starters were benched because of lack of performance.
If you like defense, you had to enjoy Tennessee's work against Alabama. Bama has been a very poor defensive team this year, which may explain that the Crimson Tide wasn't able to adequately prepare in practice for the Vols' aggressive defense. In any event, it paid big dividends for Tennessee with Alabama committing 16 turnovers that led to 16 Vols' points in the first half, when Tennessee took a 30-26 lead. For the game the Crimson Tide had 26 turnovers, the most by any team in the SEC this year. The Vols have been very good on inbounds plays this year and were against Alabama, scoring off their own opportunities, turning Tide efforts into Bama turnovers.
Alabama, which trailed by as many as nine points in the second half, had a five-point lead at 58-53 with under three minutes to play in regulation. Two close rebounding fouls against the Tide in the last 1:16 hurt Bama chances for victory as the Vols tied the game with 2:15 to play and neither team scored again in regulation.
Bama seemed to have things in good shape in overtime, taking a 64-60 lead with 3:19 to play when Richard Hendrix hit the first of two free throws. But he missed his second foul shot and a few minutes later with Tennessee leading 65-64 Tubbs missed two fouls shots. When Lamar Smith got behind the Bama defense for a short shot with 34 seconds to play, the Vols had a three-point lead at 67-64.
Bama went for a tying trey, but Torrence's shot was off the mark. Jermareo Davidson got the rebound, but instead of throwing the ball outside for another tying opportunity, he tried the putback. He was fouled, but he didn't make the field goal, eliminating a three-point opportunity. He did make two free throws to pull Bama to within a point at 67-66 with 9.6 seconds to play, but when Bama didn't make the stop on the in-bounds the Vols got an exclamation mark jam in the final two seconds.
While Tennessee forcing 26 Alabama turnovers must be credited in the Vols' victory, the irony is that Bama played uncharacteristically good defense, particularly when the bench players were on the floor. The story line will include Vols star Chris Lofton, the SEC's leading scorer, getting 20 points, including crucial three-pointers late in the game and in overtime. But Tubbs, particularly, played very tough against Lofton, who made some well-contested shots and also had more misses than makes, including an airball at the end of regulation. He was 6-22 from the field.
Alabama held Tennessee to only 33 per cent shooting, but primarily because of Bama turnovers, the Vols were able to take 81 shots (making 27). Tennessee made only seven of 36 three-point shots, about what you might see in an average YMCA pick-up game, only 19 per cent. Alabama hit 44 per cent from the field, but owing to turnovers took only 55 shots, making 24. The Tide offset the turnover margin in part by winning the rebounding battle, 52-41.
Riley led Bama with 15 points and Richard Hendrix had 10 points and 10 rebounds. Off the bench, Torrence had eight points and Jemison and Tubbs six each, Coleman five. Davidson had eight points.
No one would suggest officiating cost Alabama the game, but in an overtime loss a couple of first half points may fairly be considered to have been important. Ted Valentine is like most people in that he doesn't like his work criticized. And he's like most SEC officials in that he is not very good at his work. When Gottfried protested a horrible call that gave a streaking Tennessee the ball when the Vols had clearly knocked the ball out of bounds, Valentine used his power and gave Gottfried the first technical foul the Bama coach has had this season. The Vols got two points out of that injustice. Again, when a game goes to overtime, two points is huge.
After the game Gottfried said he was proud of his team, and particularly proud of the young players who came off the bench and performed so well. But he also lamented, "This is tough. We had a chance to win, and missed shots around the basket and we missed free throws. We guarded well. The effort was phenomenal."