With the game on the line, Andrew Steele got hot.
In a 46-second stretch late in the game, the senior guard had six points, two steals and an assist that were key in propelling Alabama to its first Southeastern Conference win of the season, a 68-65 victory over Tennessee Saturday afternoon at Coleman Coliseum.
With 3:41 remaining, UT (8-6, 0-2 SEC) led 55-54. Steele, Alabama's only senior, knocked down a pair of free throws to give Alabama (9-6, 1-1) a 56-55 lead. The Crimson Tide forced a turnover on Tennessee's next possession and Steele hit a short jump shot to extend the lead. He then followed by making a steal on the press and went up for a layup and was fouled. He made both shots to put Bama up 60-55. Seconds later, Steele made another steal out of the press and got the ball to Trevor Releford, who made the layup for a 62-55 edge.
Steele, who missed seven games earlier in the season with a sports hernia and is only in his third game back, went on to finish the game with 11 points, nine of which came in the second half.
"At the end of the game Andrew Steele was the difference," said Alabama head coach Anthony Grant. "We put him in and he changed the whole complexion of the game. He took a game that could have gone either way and with his heart he said, ‘No we're getting this,' and our team fed off it.
"And that's what we've been looking for. I'm proud of him for doing that. I told him that when he leads like that, this team will follow."
But what put Steele in position to take over was Releford. After Alabama played a terrible first half that consisted of weak shooting (sank just 8-of-30 shots), missed layups (10 in a row to close out the half), and a lack of intensity on the glass (Tennessee out-rebounded Alabama 26-15 in the first), the Vols took a 28-24 lead at the break.
Then Releford, who hadn't scored a single point in the first 20 minutes, came flying out of the locker room, scoring eight straight points and added a steal in the first three-and-a-half minutes. Alabama and Tennessee traded buckets for most of the half, but the junior guard's energy and intensity provided a shift in momentum and kept the Tide in the hunt. He went on to finish the game with 15 points.
"He's probably one of the best guys in the country, in my opinion," said Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin. "In transition, he's either scoring points or getting fouled. He's very crafty with the basketball."
After shooting just 26.7 percent from the floor in the first half, Alabama was much better in the second, making 15-of-24 shots (62.5 percent). Tennessee owned the glass, out-rebounding Bama 40-25, but committed 16 turnovers.
The Tide also made 16-of-19 free throws, while Tennessee struggled from the line, going 8-of-16.
After the game, Grant praised his team for how they fought in the second half. Now the challenge will be sustaining it as conference play gets underway.
"My message, more than anything else, is at some point you gotta stop taking punches and start throwing some of your own," Grand said. "I felt like in the second half, as a team, we took a stand."
For more Alabama coverage, follow Laken Litman on Twitter!