Tennessee turns Tide

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When Trevor Lacey's potential game-winning shot at the buzzer was foiled by a collision with Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes, Thompson-Boling Arena grew so hushed you could've heard a pin drop … or a whistle blow.

When no pins dropped and no whistles blew, the Vols and 18,791 of their fans erupted in celebration of a heart-stopping 54-53 defeat of Alabama.

Given how many close games Tennessee has dropped this year, Stokes assumed he would hear a whistle on the final play.

"I definitely thought they would call a foul," he said. "I knew I didn't jump but a lot of those calls go in guards' favor."

With 11.8 seconds left and Alabama setting up its final shot, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin warned his players to look for Lacey.

"Coach definitely called it," Stokes said. "He told us exactly what play they were going to run. They had just run it two times and he (Lacey) scored off both of them."

This time Stokes wound up switching off his man to pick up Lacey, who dribbled toward the left baseline, collided with Stokes and fumbled the ball out of bounds as he tried to launch the potential game-winning shot.

"I don't even know what happened," Stokes said. "I just put my hands up and prayed in my head."

Basically, this game was decided by a call Martin made and a call the officials didn't make. Martin's call was to the SEC office earlier this week, complaining that Stokes was being whistled for an inordinate number of fouls just because of his imposing 6-foot-8, 270-pound physique. The breaking point for Martin occurred Thursday night at Ole Miss, when Stokes picked up two ticky-tack fouls in the game's opening 2 minutes and 33 seconds.

The call must have done some good because Stokes was foul free at halftime of the Bama game. Without the usual foul burden, he recorded 15 points and 18 rebounds in his best performance of the season.

Tennessee guard Jordan McRae (52) puts up a shot over Alabama's Trevor Releford. McRae led the Volunteers with 17 points.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)

"That definitely gave me a lot of confidence – to have my coach have my back," Stokes said, noting that the guys in the striped shirts "officiated well" in this game.

Tennessee played well, too, at least down the stretch. Trailing 46-39 entering the final six minutes, the Vols got a momentum-changing 3-pointer from Jordan McRae that narrowed the gap to 46-42 with 5:48 left. After an Alabama free throw, Josh Richardson hit a pull-up 10-footer from in front as Tennessee closed to 47-44 with 5:02 remaining.

Two McRae free throws trimmed the deficit to 47-46 with 4:07 remaining. Stokes scored inside to give Tennessee its first lead since 2-0 at 48-47 with 3:31 to play. Stokes then intercepted a Tide pass on the defensive end and hit a shot-clock buzzer-beating 10-footer on the offensive end to put the Vols up 50-47 with 2:28 left.

Alabama pulled even on a 3-pointer by Lacey but McRae hit a driving five-footer for a 52-50 lead with 58 seconds to go. Trae Golden hit both ends of a 1-and-1 with 31.4 seconds left to give Tennessee a 54-50 cushion but Trevor Releford sank a 3 that narrowed the gap to 54-53 with 18.5 seconds left.

Golden missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 15.4 seconds left and the ensuing loose ball went off Tennessee with 11.8 seconds remaining, setting up the dramatic finish. This time fate smiled on the Vols … for a change.

"I just want to thank God for allowing us to play good," Stokes said. "Times have been very hard at Tennessee right now, as far as the way we've lost. We gave up a lot of games and a lot of calls didn't go our way but we stuck together."

Tennessee won despite shooting 42.0 percent (21 of 50) from the field, 20 percent (2 of 10) from 3 and 62.5 percent (10 of 16) from the foul line. The great equalizer was the backboards, where the Vols posted a 37-22 advantage. Eight of Stokes' game-high 18 rebounds came off the offensive glass.

"I wanted to be more aggressive going to the boards," he said. "Even if I didn't get the ball, I wanted to still make my impact on the boards. That's something I haven't been doing – making an impact on the boards."

Golden said Stokes makes an impact just by being on the floor.

"You have an anchor down low, and he's not being subbed in and out (due to foul trouble)," Golden said. "That's instrumental for our team just because he's such a big part of our offense. When he doesn't get in foul trouble it really helps the flow on offense."

Alabama shot a solid 46.7 percent (21 of 45) from the field and a strong 42.9 percent (6 of 14) from 3. The Tide committed just 8 turnovers but shot a paltry 45.5 percent (5 of 11) from the free-throw line.

Releford led Bama with 18 points. Lacey chipped in 11 and Rodney Cooper 10 for the Tide, now 12-7 overall and 4-2 in SEC action.

McRae scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half to pace Tennessee, now 10-8 and 2-4.

The Vols return to action Tuesday, hosting Vanderbilt at 7 p.m.

Here are Cuonzo Martin's post-game comments:

Here are Jarnell Stokes' post-game comments:

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