Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Behind a career high 17 rebounds from Jarnell Stokes, the Vols finally found a way to win a close game.
So, as a Tennessee fan the last few years, I'm not entirely convinced this game is over; the refs may come running back on the floor and decide Jarnell Stokes did foul Trevor Lacey on the game's final play.
But that doesn't mean I'm convinced they got the call wrong - at the very least, Lacey doesn't even establish contact with Stokes until Stokes is back on the ground. If you're trying to draw a foul, you've gotta get them while you've got them in the air. Either way, until I'm told otherwise, Alabama loses, Tennessee wins.
It was a huge, huge win for Tennessee, ending Bama's four game win streak and stopping a five of six slide for the Vols. This is Tennessee's second most impressive win of the season and without question its most important; after a brutal opening stretch in SEC play, UT's next five games are against teams with RPIs between 92 and 193. UT's RPI rises to 80 with today's win; the flip side of an easier schedule is there's not much Tennessee can do to jump it higher in the next two and a half weeks outside of the road test at Arkansas next Saturday, but the good news is today's win could spark a run similar to what we saw last season. Most importantly, the win today allows the Vols to continue to play what they know are meaningful basketball games going forward.
And the win today in no way happens without Jarnell Stokes.
Jimmy Dykes - who is one of my favorite analysts - rode Stokes all game. But hey, if he wants to keep calling our games, he's welcome to after this effort: 15 points, a career high 18 rebounds, only two turnovers, only two fouls, and 35 big minutes. Those minutes are, by far, the largest contribution of the season for Stokes; you know at least some of that came because he wasn't in foul trouble, and you know at least some of that came because Cuonzo Martin picked up the phone and called the SEC office after the hard loss in Oxford where Stokes was again hampered with foul trouble all game.
Playing without that burden today, Stokes and the Vols did exactly what they had to do against Alabama's four guard lineup: the Vols almost doubled up Alabama in rebounds to the tune of 37-22, and tripled Alabama on the offensive glass 12-4. The 18 boards are the most since Jeronne Maymon had 20 in double overtime against Memphis in Maui last season, and credit Armani Moore for pulling down a big one down the stretch as well. The young freshman had 4 points and 7 big boards in his first start, and against Bama's lineup he was on the floor late with Trae Golden instead of Kenny Hall.
Jordan McRae was sluggish in the first half, but made up in the second with 15 points in the half, 17 for the game, and UT's biggest field goal on a contested runner that put the Vols up 52-50 after Alabama tied it with a big three. The Vols survived a 6 of 14 (42.9%) performance from the Tide, and while Tennessee still struggled at the free throw line (10 of 16, 62.5%, including a huge front end miss by Trae Golden that gave Bama a chance to win on the final possession), turnovers were much improved as the Vols committed just 10 after 21 two nights ago in Oxford.
The defense kept us in it - Bama made two field goals in the final nine minutes - and the turnovers didn't take us out of it, but the biggest difference was Stokes. Maybe this is the game that gets him going; if he can play 35 minutes a night (and I don't know that he can every night) we're a much better basketball team on the offensive end. He especially is going to find life much easier in the next two and a half weeks, and hopefully can create more space for the rest of the offense as well.
The journey continues Tuesday night against our old friends from Vanderbilt in Knoxville; the Dores are 8-9 and have won two straight over South Carolina and Auburn, but are at Missouri tonight. The Vols have a great opportunity to keep it rolling - you could hear some frustration being released by Stokes in the postgame, and if the Vols string together wins they'll replace it with a happy return to confidence. The defense continues to be the constant - twice in this game ESPN ran that "Alabama no field goals in _:__" counter that's becoming commonplace against us. But if Stokes gets loose and gets going, the Vols are a beast of a different kind.
Today was step one, and it's always cause for celebration when Tennessee beats Alabama. Enjoy this one...we needed it. And then let's get step two Tuesday night.