Ron Slay scored a game-high 23 points but took a hasty 3-pointer from way outside that fell two feet short of the basket when the homestanding Vols trailed by just five points in the final minute. That ill-advised shot killed UT's momentum and had head coach Buzz Peterson shaking his head on the UT bench.
C.J. Watson made a crucial miscue late, as well. After banking home a 3-pointer that narrowed the gap to 73-71 with 13.8 seconds remaining, he watched as Bama's Mo Williams hit the front end of a two-shot foul with 12.4 seconds left. Williams missed the second shot, and the outlet pass went to Watson, who inexplicably roared upcourt for a layup, even though the Vols needed a 3-pointer to tie. The layup rimmed out but it was a moot point. Even if Watson had made it, UT would've lost.
Peterson shrugged off the mishap as a ''freshman mistake'' and suggested it would be wrong to pinpoint that play as a key to the loss. ''We lost this game before we came out of the locker room,'' the head man said.
That's probably true. As the frustrated Vol fan mentioned earlier noted, Holden was just about the only Vol who showed up to play. The Big Orange did not exhibit the fire, the focus or the discipline it showed during the six-game winning streak that got it to the brink of an NCAA Tournament bid just one week ago.
The Vols should've had little trouble with a Bama team that was seriously on the skids. Since a 9-0 start earned a short-lived No. 1 national ranking, the Tide had become the laughing stock of college basketball, losing eight of 13 games to drop out of the top 25. Moreover, Bama had not won a road game all season when it strolled onto the court at Thompson-Boling Arena.
In short, Alabama was a program in disarray, a wounded animal ready to be put out of its misery. It was eerily reminiscent of the Florida football team that limped into Neyland Stadium last September off a lopsided loss to Miami. But, just as the Football Vols came out flat against the Gators, the Basketball Vols came out flat against the Tide. The results were identical: A visiting team that should be easy pickings gets an early lead, gains some confidence, then dominates the action.
The Vols essentially sleepwalked through the game's first 27 minutes. Their offense wasn't crisp and their transition defense was a no-show. That's why they trailed by 18 points with just over 13 minutes remaining. Once Tennessee turned up its energy, Alabama proceded to wilt, enabling UT to pull within two points in the final minute. Had the Vols cranked it up from the start, it's a safe bet they would've won comfortably against a Bama team that had lost six of eight games coming in.
But the Vols waited too late to awaken from their nap. As a result, they blew a game they should've won and put their NCAA Tournament hopes on hold.
UT faces an almost certain loss Wednesday at second-ranked Kentucky, a team which is 12-0 in SEC play and riding a 16-game winning streak. Assuming the Wildcats hand the Vols their third consecutive loss, Tennessee will take a 15-9 overall record and a 7-6 league record into its final three regular-season games -- LSU (Saturday), Mississippi State (March 5) and Vanderbilt (March 8 at Nashville).
Based on historical precedent, Tennessee needs to win two of those three, plus a game in the SEC Tournament, to reach the 18-victory mark likely to ensure an NCAA Tournament bid. If UT wins just one of its four remaining games, the Vols will finish 8-8 in league play. And, as Mike Strange noted in today's Knoxville News-Sentinel, only three of 11 SEC teams to finish 8-8 since the league expanded to 12 teams has earned an NCAA Tournament bid.
Even if Tennessee can win two of its remaining four games to finish regular-season play at 17-11 overall and 9-7 in SEC play, the Vols may not get invited to the Big Dance without notching a victory in the league tournament. Only two teams have gotten NCAA bids after finishing 9-7 in league play, then losing their SEC Tournament opener.