It was fun while it lasted. After four straight wins and a week of speculation about whether this Tennessee team could make a run to the NCAA tournament, the Vols were unable to take advantage of the short-handed Alabama Crimson Tide and were dealt another road reality check, falling 62-50 in Tuscaloosa
Alabama was playing without their two leading scorers and rebounders in JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell, but the Tide didn't forget how to defend the perimeter, and that was enough to handily defeat the cold-shooting Tennessee Volunteers. Tennessee held Alabama to just 37% from the floor and 28% from beyond the arc, but the Vols were even worse, shooting 34% from the field and 20% from three-point range, a performance that dredged up unpleasant memories of ugly road losses in Memphis and Athens. It was the kind of game that has plagued Tennessee all season. It was a young team on the road against a very good defense, so a bad shooting and ball-handling night is not a big surprise. But it was also the kind of game the Vols had hoped they'd put behind them. And when you dig a hole as deep as Tennessee did in December, there's no margin for error in the attempt to climb back into contention.
So again, it's time to re-adjust expectations. Forgotten in all the NCAA tournament hope was that the NIT berth would be an outstanding result for a team that was picked 11th in the SEC and suffered six straight losses to Division I competition in the non-conference schedule. Also forgotten was that an NIT berth is not a sure thing. Among the last at-large teams in last year's NIT field were 20-13 (7-9 SEC) Ole Miss and 18-13 (7-11 Big Ten) Northwestern. Tennessee's improvement means the Vols probably don't need 18 wins to make the field, but they still need two wins in their last four (a stretch that includes games at LSU and vs Vanderbilt in which the Vols will almost certainly be underdogs) to even keep themselves on the NIT bubble and probably need three wins or an SEC tournament run to feel secure. That will take some doing.
The first half set the tempo for the game, but as bad as it was, contributions from Trae Golden and Jeronne Maymon kept the Vols within four at the break. With Kenny Hall still suspended and Jarnell Stokes sitting with two early fouls, Maymon opened 4 of 4 from the field and 4 of 4 from the line to lead the Vols with 12 points. But, in what would be the story of the day, no one else could get anything against the stifling Alabama defense. The rest of the team opened a horrendous 1 of 15 from the field, including 1 of 9 from beyond the arc, and Alabama's offense, while also ugly, was able to do enough to lead 27-17. But then Trae Golden found his stroke, making two quick threes and adding a runner to cut the halftime deficit to a manageable 29-25. Both teams shot below 37% from the field and below 28% from beyond the arc in the first half, but Alabama rebounded more than half of their missed shots and made 10 free throws in only 11 attempts (led by 7 of 8 from Trevor Lacey) to give the Tide the early edge.
In the second half, Stokes and Maymon began to assert themselves inside, and it looked as though Tennessee would make a game out of it. The pair scored Tennessee's first eight points, and with 16:42 remaining, Maymon was at the line with a chance to tie the game at 34.
He missed the shot. And then Tennessee fell apart. Eight turnovers and 13 missed baskets (to just one made) later, Alabama had ridden an 18-2 run to a 52-33 lead. Cuonzo Martin's Vols have suffered stretches of cold shooting all season, but they've been able to stay in games by holding the other team to equally poor shooting. This time, Alabama was able to score in transition before the Vols could get their defense set and was able to score at the line, where they hit 23 of 30 shots on the night.
All told, Maymon finished with 20 points on 6 of 8 shooting and Golden added 12 on 4 of 9. Stokes, after not taking a shot in the first half, put up eight points and eight rebounds in the second. And the rest of the team did nothing. Skylar McBee ended his streak of three consecutive games of 4 of 7 shooting behind the arc. Jordan McRae was unable to provide his spark from off the bench. And Cameron Tatum continued a cold stretch not seen since Jordan Howell's senior year. The trio, together with Josh Richardson, finished a combined 2 of 22 from the floor and 2 of 17 from deep. And when that happens, Tennessee loses.
The Vols are back in action Wednesday night as they try to regain their footing and climb back towards the postseason, even if it isn't the postseason they were hoping for this morning.