The whispers began in the afternoon, and they turned out to be true. Tennessee was forced to open SEC play without their two best players, Kennedy Chandler and John Fulkerson, after both tested positive for COVID-19.
The timing was less than ideal, with a trip to Tuscaloosa on the schedule to open things up in conference play. However, the short-handed Volunteers came out ready to fight.
Santiago Vescovi stepped up to the plate early, making things happen for Tennessee. The Vols were missing their sparkplug with Chandler out, but early on Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler filled in nicely.
Tennessee got out to 33-23 lead in the first half, keeping Alabama in check from the three point line. The Crimson Tide really struggled to find any sort of offensive rhythm, and Tennessee was particularly locked in on the defensive end.
You knew Alabama’s cold shooting wouldn’t last forever, though. The Tide went on a 10-0 spurt to end the first half, tying the game at 33 each as we went to the halftime break. Tennessee took their foot off the gas for just a couple of minutes, settling for tough jumpers, and Alabama instantly responded.
Noah Gurley led the way early with ten first half points, picking up the slack after a slow start from Jaden Shackelford.
Vescovi started the second half with five quick points. He was the creator for the offense, making the right decisions and playing in total control. Alabama didn’t have much of an answer, either.
The Tide’s offensive struggle continued as they began 0-4 from the three point line to open the half. Lacking offensive firepower, Tennessee failed to pull away though.
Jahvon Quinerly eventually found an answer for Alabama. The veteran point guard worked the paint to find a few buckets, eventually evening the game back up at 45.
Back and forth we went, as things got more and more chippy between the two rivals. This game turned into a battle in the paint, with Charles Bediako and Uros Plavsic absolutely going to war in the middle portion of the second half. Nothing came easy for either side down the stretch.
Tennessee was able to find a bit of breathing room at the under eight mark, as Zakai Zeigler hit two free throws to give the Vols a five point lead. Alabama just could not get anything started offensively, as the three-pointers continued to miss.
Eventually, Alabama made their run. Keon Ellis drilled a three and then Juwan Gary connected on a putback to cut the lead to 63-62 with under 3:30 to play.
Olivier Nkamhoua took a key charge, and then connected on a layup at the other end on a great feed from Zakai Zeigler. But then Shackelford nailed a corner three, and we were suddenly tied at 65.
Shackelford made a tough shot in the paint, Nkamhoua answered with a three and then Keon Ellis found his own answer with another three. A wild sequence left Alabama with a two point lead with just 41 seconds to play.
Victor Bailey missed a wide open look, and Tennessee was forced to start fouling.
With 14 seconds left, Noah Gurley hit two free throws to seal the deal. Tennessee, down its two best players, led the entire game only to have it slip away late. All things considered, you can’t be too upset with the effort, although it does sting quite a bit.
Final Score: Tennessee 68, Alabama 73
FINAL NUMBERS— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) December 30, 2021
NKAMHOUA - 15p / 9r
VESCOVI - 13p / 6r / 3a / 3s
ZEIGLER - 11p / 4a
HUNTLEY-HATFIELD - 8p / 2r
BAILEY JR. - 7p
PLAVŠIĆ - 6p / 9r
POWELL - 5p / 3r
JAMES - 3p / 3r pic.twitter.com/q9OoxhNrpo
Tennessee will host Ole Miss next Wednesday night.