After a major beatdown at the hands of the Alabama Crimson Tide last season in Tuscaloosa, the Tennessee Volunteers came into Saturday’s matchup looking for revenge.
Except there was more than just revenge on the line in this game. An 11-game winning streak, an 18-game home winning streak, and a chance at the No. 1 ranking in the country were on the line for the Vols as well.
Even though it came down to the wire, Tennessee was able to preserve and to continue to extend those records after a hard-fought win against the Tide.
Tennessee picked up right where it left off against the Arkansas Razorbacks, shooting 50% from the field and recording six rebounds in the first 3:30 minutes of play to build an 8-2 lead.
The quick run was highlighted by another amazing dunk by Yves Pons and the Vols were rolling early.
The Tide, on the other hand, didn’t start off so well.
The Vols built an 11-2 lead off of an 11-2 run with 14:00 left in the game thanks to a 2/8 shooting start from Alabama. Avery Johnson’s team had gone on a four minute scoring drought before Donta Hall ended it with his second dunk of the game to make the score 11-4.
But Kyle Alexander immediately responded with a layup on the other end and Tennessee’s defense continued to clamp down. Outside of a few breakdowns in transition, the Vols weren’t allowing the Tide to make any easy buckets and it was showing up on the stat sheet.
UT’s 20-10 lead was due in large part to 4/17 shooting, seven turnovers and just six points in the paint. With just 8:00 left in the first half, Alabama needed to find some offense in a major way.
Despite shooting nearly 50% from the floor at this point, the Vols had yet to hit any shots from three. If they could get the outside game going then things could start getting ugly for Alabama.
Fortunately for the Tide, Tennessee couldn’t find the spot from the outside. After an extremely sluggish offensive start, both teams finally found a groove later in the first half. The Vols hit five shots in a row while Bama hit four, and the nine combined shots left the game at a 32-22 mark with 4:46 left in the first half.
The three-point shooting started to come to life for Tennessee soon after. Jordan Bowden was able to get a good look from the top of the key and Admiral Schofield followed that right up with one of his own to push the lead to 38-27.
Tennessee continued to pour it on to the tune of a 44-32 first half lead. The offense played one of its most efficient halves of the season, shooting 60% from the field, including a 2/5 mark from three. The Vols were operating at a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio with 26 points in the paint.
Alabama finished the half 8/14 from the floor after starting off 4/17, but couldn’t sustain any momentum during the first 20:00 of the game. Every time the Tide hit a big shot, Tennessee would respond.
They simply looked outmatched at this point. Could Johnson find a way to tap into his young team and get them over the hump in the second half?
Well, he certainly tapped into John Petty during the half. Petty came out and made the team’s first three shots of the second half, sparking a 13-0 run that saw Alabama take the lead, 45-44. It was the first time all season long that the Vols trailed at home after halftime.
An irate Rick Barnes took a timeout in order to figure out how to stop the Crimson Tide attack.
Just like Johnson, Barnes provided an immediate answer, except his player was Jordan Bowden. Barnes drew up a play that found Bowden down low for a quick jumper to end the run and give the lead back to the Vols, 46-45.
Bowden hit another three a few possessions later to give the Vols some breathing room and push the lead to 51-47, but Petty came right back with a layup to keep the Tide within one score, 51-49. After scoring just 10 points in the first half, Petty already had 10 points with 15:00 to play in the second half.
Alabama’s Herbert Jones had a chance to tie the game from the free throw line, but missed both free throws as the team continued to struggle from the line as a whole. A 50% hit rate would not beat the third ranked team in the country.
Grant Williams drained a 15-footer off some slick moves to give the Vols a 55-49 lead, but Petty came roaring right back with consecutive three-pointers to tie the game, 55-55. It was a season-high 26 points for Petty and it looked like there was plenty more to come.
He was able to draw the foul off Williams en route to the bucket, but hit just one of his free throws. It was still good enough to give Alabama a one point, 56-55 lead, however.
But Admiral Schofield responded with a layup and a foul of his own. He hit the free throw and the Vols led, 58-56.
It was short-lived, though. The Vols lost Petty yet again on defense and he hit his fifth three-pointer of the second half. It was a wide-open shot from the corner and the lead went right back to the Tide, 59-58.
Donta Hall then followed up a missed layup with an offensive rebound-turned-into-dunk that pushed the lead to 61-58. Alabama had serious momentum at this point and the Vols were on the ropes.
Bama had shot 69% compared to UT’s 32% from the floor at this point. It was a tale of two halves as both teams continued to trade blows with 7:30 left in the game.
Lamonte Turner’s fourth foul didn’t make things any better, but fortunately for the Vols, Alabama missed both free throws again and the lead was still 61-58.
The Vols were able to pull back within one and appeared to have taken the lead off a Williams’ basket, but a terrible offensive foul called on Williams prevented that from happening.
And guess who he supposedly fouled? None other than John Petty.
A tough basket from Hall pushed the lead back to three points for the Tide, 63-60. Outside of Hall and Petty, Alabama had no answers.
But that didn’t matter because the Vols were approaching a six-minute scoring drought with just 4:39 to play. Ten straight misses and a 22% shooting mark from the floor were the reason for the three-point deficit.
Tennessee caught a break when Williams was fouled by Alex Reese, but Williams could only convert one of his free throw opportunities. It was time for the defense to step it up.
The defense got the stop it needed thanks to an ill-advised deep three. Bowden responded with a mid-range jumper and the game was tied 63-63 with 3:17 to play.
Kira Lewis Jr. came through with an answer of his own in the form of a jumper, but Schofield immediately dropped one in on the other end to keep the score tied, but at 65-65.
A key offensive foul on Lewis Jr. gave the ball back to Tennessee and Schofield hit a tough runner over the middle to put the Vols back in the lead, 67-65, but Alabama’s Dazon Ingram was fouled while driving to the basket and had a chance to tie the game back up.
But he couldn’t convert both attempts and the Vols still led by one point.
Schofield then barley missed an opportunity to push the lead to three and Alabama had a chance to take the lead. Excellent ball movement found who else but Petty wide open to make the three-pointer that would put the Tide up by two points.
But as Petty pulled back to fire, Grant Williams came through with a candidate for the defensive play of the year and blocked the potential shot.
Williams continued to give it his all on the ensuing offensive possession, collecting a blocked Schofield shot and dropping it in for two points and a 69-66 Volunteer lead.
Alabama wasn’t done though. A bad foul on Tennessee gave Donta Hall a chance at two free throws and a one point deficit for Alabama. Despite the team’s struggles from the line, Hall nailed both shots and cut the lead to 69-68.
Things took a drastic turn for Tennessee on the next possession after Williams was called for his fifth foul of the game. It was a bad decision by Williams, who unnecessarily drove his shoulder into Hall’s chest as he drove to the bucket.
And not only was it Williams’ fifth foul, but it gave Alabama the ball back with :09 seconds left and a chance to win the game.
If you thought anyone else other than John Petty was getting the ball, you’d be crazy.
Sure enough, Petty received the ball, but the results were anything other than what Bama hoped for. Excellent defense from Schofield forced Petty into a travel and Tennessee recovered the ball with :03 seconds to play.
Alabama subsequently fouled Turner, but he was able to hit both free throws to give the Vols a three-point lead, 71-68. The Tide missed the half court hail-mary and Tennessee found a way to win its 12th straight game.
The Vols are now 16-1 (5-0) on the season. They will travel to Nashville on January 23rd to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores. Tip-off is scheduled for 7PM EST.