There wasn't going to be a winner in this one, just a survivor. And in the end, it was Alabama who was tougher longer: while the Vols turned the ball over four times on their first six overtime possessions, the Tide just kept getting to the line. Alabama went 10 for 10 at the stripe in the extra session, and that was enough to keep the Vols at bay. It is a huge win for the Crimson Tide, who go to 7-1 in the SEC and get the road resume win they needed to convince the selection committee that they're for real.
And they are. They may not be overly talented and don't play a sexy brand of basketball, but Bama is tough as nails defensively, well coached by Anthony Grant, and anyone who wants to entertain victory against them better pack a lunch. Despite the absence of Scotty Hopson and all the things that could've gone differently in this game, the right team won today.
Alabama certainly looked like the right team in the first half, exploding to 38 points on an absurd 16-of-24 shooting spree, which included a number of spectacular dunks. Bama played like a team with something to prove and everything to gain, and they abused the Vols inside. Tony Mitchell led the way; he finished with 24 points. Tennessee was fortunate to only be down 38-27 at the break.
Tennessee, to their credit, came out in the second half and put a stop to all that. A much more aggressive Tennessee defense held Alabama to 28.5% in the second half, and took over on the glass to finish +10 in rebounds.
The Vols also held Bama to 0.0% from the floor in overtime. And yet, Bama won. Consider this: in the second half and overtime combined, Alabama hit eight shots. Eight. Ocho.
Tennessee missed Hopson, sure, but Alabama's win over Kentucky two weeks ago - in which they held the Cats to 37.7% from the field - suggests today was no fluke. (One other note: Kentucky shot 13 of 22 (59.1%) at the free throw line in that game, and lost by two. Today the Vols shot 12 of 20 (60.0%), and lost in overtime. I'm sure Bama appreciates the help.)
The Vols got a 19-11 from Tobias Harris, who hit a huge shot to tie the game at 55 in the final minute of regulation. And Cameron Tatum added 16 points, which is impressive considering he went 0 for 4 from the arc. It wasn't that the Vols didn't get enough contribution from everyone else - Skylar McBee hit 3 threes and had 6 rebounds and 3 steals in 25 minutes, playing a ton in Hopson's absence. In crunch time it was McBee and not Josh Bone who got the minutes at the 2. Steven Pearl had a season-high 5 points and continued to do little things well.
But Tennessee couldn't get enough consistent offense going to take control of the game. In the first half, their horrific defense wouldn't allow it. And in the second, when the Vols came roaring back to take the lead at 45-44 with 9:33 to play, Alabama responded with a run to regain a six point lead. This was helped along by a crazy stretch with several turnovers on both teams, and whistles few and far between.
The Vols fought back again to get it to overtime after having a chance to win on the final possession of regulation. But as has been the case far, far too often this year, the Vols settled for a long three with time winding down, unable to get any kind of a good look.
It was the same thing in overtime: Bama couldn't hit anything, but just kept getting to the line. And the Vols couldn't give themselves a chance to respond, turning it over too many times to give themselves a chance.
This was a battle that saw both teams give everything they had down the stretch. Bama's style will lend itself to more of these defensive struggles, where every basket is so important. But their defense is so good, even when they're ice cold from the floor they stay in games...and in today's case, won it without needing to make a shot.
Tennessee falls to 15-8, 5-3 in the SEC. Bruce Pearl returns, but the Vols could certainly use Hopson as well. Winning the conference will certainly be difficult now, and with Lexington and Gainesville coming up this week, the Vols' season could take a turn for the worst.
The defense we played in the second half certainly shows what we're capable of. I liked what we got from our bench tonight, liked the way we fought back...just didn't like the way we finished. It's Tennessee's eighth loss, and the fifth by one possession or in overtime. This one can make us better, but with or without Hopson, until we start giving ourselves a better chance at the end of the game, we're not going to deserve victory in the close contests that are certain to follow us the rest of the way home in this league.