UT coach Bruce Pearl summed up the evening in six words: "This game was won on effort."
It was won on DEFENSIVE effort, to be precise, along with the number 26. Tennessee forced 26 turnovers and, as a result, attempted 26 more shots (81 to 55) than Bama. So, despite being outshot 43.6 to 33.3 percent from the field, the Vols produced more points.
The play of the game was made by freshman Ramar Smith with roughly 37 seconds left in overtime and Tennessee clinging to a tenuous 65-64 lead. With the shot clock winding down and his teammates blanketed by Alabama's lanky and super-quick defenders, Smith's only option was to drive to the basket and hope for the best.
Asked if he felt any hesitation about taking over in such a critical situation, Smith shook his head.
"None at all," he said. "I know I can make big plays. Coach knows I can make big plays, so I put myself in situations to make big plays."
This one may have been UT's biggest of the season.
"It was a short shot clock, and they was face-guarding Chris Lofton and everybody else," Smith recalled. "I knew we needed a bucket, so I drove it in."
Unable to reach the basket, Smith pulled up and lofted a six-foot shot over the outstretched arms of Bama's 6-10 Jermareo Davidson.
"He was right there," Smith said. "It wasn't a good shot."
It banked off the glass and through the hoop, though, for what proved to be the game-winning shot. Down 67-64, Bama missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer but Davidson got the rebound and was fouled. He made both free throws, narrowing the gap to 67-66 with 9.6 seconds left.
Tennessee shredded the Tide's fullcourt press on the ensuing inbounds play, and Duke Crews popped free for a dunk with 1.9 seconds left to seal the deal.
Lofton scored a game-high 20 points but made just 6 of 22 field-goal tries, including a frigid 3 of 15 from 3-point range. Although he never found his rhythm, he had to keep shooting because, simply put, Tennessee's offense couldn't execute against the tall, talented Tide.
"I wanted to stop shooting," Lofton said, "but the coaches told me to keep firing, so that's what I tried to do."
Thanks to a defensive performance that Pearl described as "spectacular," Tennessee managed to make just enough stops to offset its inability to make baskets.
Tennessee used a 12-2 spurt late in the first half to take a 30-20 lead. Alabama scored the final six points of the half, however, and went to the locker room trailing just 30-26.
The Tide battled back to take a 58-53 lead with three minutes left in regulation. Lofton hit a 3, however, and Ramar Smith scored on a steal and drive to tie the score at 58. Two Lofton free throws gave the Vols a 60-58 lead with 26.8 seconds left but Mikhail Torrance hit a game-tying 6-footer with 8 seconds left.
Lofton missed badly on a desperation 3 at the buzzer, sending the game into overtime and sending his mind racing. What was he thinking?
"Oh, man, please don't let us lose. Let us find a way to win."
Sure enough, Tennessee found a way to win. It just took an extra five minutes of searching.