This was without question a better performance from Tennessee than what we saw Wednesday night, and one of UT's best shooting displays of the season. But it still goes down as a loss, as Alabama hit a critical 10-0 spurt trailing 55-52 late and then stayed in front the rest of the way, as Trae Golden's final three came up empty in a 68-65 loss.
A lot of this game was about Golden in one way or another: benched for the first time all year at the opening tip for a McRae-McBee-Richardson perimeter lineup, Golden still played enough minutes to take nine shots. He only made three of them, with two coming late as the Vols tried to respond to that Bama 10-0 run.
The run came because Alabama exploited Tennessee's lack of true ball handlers, which probably includes Golden though he wasn't the primary culprit here: Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson dribbled into identical traps on consecutive possessions, then Richardson gave it away again the next time down the floor leading to six Bama points. The Tide finished -16 on the glass but +9 in turnovers, one of the biggest differences in the game and certainly the most important difference in the final minutes.
The Vols got good minutes from Armani Moore, who once served as Golden's backup, and Derek Reese: the newcomers combined for 12 points and 7 rebounds off the bench. Jordan McRae went 20+ for the third straight game, finising with 21 on 8 of 14 shooting; Josh Richardson had 8 on 4 of 6. But both turned it over five times. In the end the Vols shot 47.3%, a number I think any of us would've thought to be good enough to win against Alabama or almost anyone on our schedule, but 16 turnovers and an abysmal 8 of 16 performance at the free throw line betrayed that effort.
Credit Alabama, who shot better from three (6 of 14 for 42.9%) than they did from the field (42.6%). The Tide also knocked down 16 of 19 free throws and got 15 apiece from Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey.
Something else to keep an eye on for Tennessee: having already benched Trae Golden, Cuonzo Martin left Jarnell Stokes on the bench for most of the second half. The big fella finished with 6 points and 7 rebounds but played only 21 minutes and was not in foul trouble. Perhaps Alabama's four guard lineup had something to do with it, but this continues to be a frustrating sophomore season for #5. I suspect he'll get more minutes Tuesday night at Rupp Arena.
That's where it goes next, which means it gets no easier. The Vols defended much better but simply cannot afford to give it away so many times, even when they're shooting well. And a team that typically relies on free throws for so much of its offense simply has to shoot better than 50%, plain and simple; the Vols beat both Alabama and Georgetown if they shoot even a pedestrian percentage at the free throw line.
The Vols are squarely behind the eight ball at 0-2 in the league and 8-6 overall. The team continues to search for identity and continuity, especially in the final few minutes. Right now the only constant is Jordan McRae's scoring, which is certainly welcome but not enough. The Vols have to get better, plain and simple, before even the bubble slips away.