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Tennessee loses semifinal thriller to Alabama, 73-68

Tennessee just didn’t have enough to finish the job.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Tennessee vs Alabama
The Vols came up just shy of their third straight SEC Tournament final appearance.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The objective was clear for the No. 4 Tennessee Volunteers (18-7, 10-7) and the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (22-6, 16-2) as they went into Saturday’s matchup: If you win, you’re punching your ticket to the championship game in the SEC Tournament.

A superb first-half performance and a double-digit second-half lead weren’t enough to take down Alabama, however, as Tennessee committed 19 turnovers and missed seven straight shots toward the end of the game. Davonte Gaines had a chance to put the Vols out in front with seconds left, but he missed both free throws, which essentially guaranteed the win for the Tide.

But it wasn’t Gaines’ fault by any means. Bama played their asses off in the second half and Tennessee’s offense was abysmal enough to allow the Tide to creep back into the game.

Tennessee finished the game shooting 41.7%, while Bama shot 37.3%. The Tide had issues with turnovers, too, but they were able to eventually stop the bleeding and make enough plays down the stretch to win the game.

Alabama’s offense came right out of the gate with a bucket on its first possession of the game, but Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson helped ignite a 9-0 run that put the Vols in front, 9-2, early. Tennessee made four straight shots while Alabama went on a 2:41 scoring drought that included two turnovers in a 2:13 span. Two free throws from Herbert Jones ended both the run and the drought, but Josiah Jordan-James immediately responded with a bucket on the subsequent possession and Tennessee led, 11-4, with 16:43 left in the first half.

Sloppy play —that included three turnovers on as many possessions— allowed Alabama to fight back and make it a 15-12 game, but Bama’s offense didn’t do much after. A 2:11 scoring drought that featured an 0-for-4 mark from the field were the catalysts in Tennessee re-establishing a multi-score lead. The Vols eventually pulled out to a 20-12 lead until a Jahvon Quinerly layup ended Bama’s scoreless run. Tennessee led, 20-14, with 11:12 to go in the first half.

Alabama was able to put together its own 7-0 run to make it a 23-21 lead, but Tennessee quickly responded with its own 7-0 run — its second of the game— to go back up, 30-21. Santiago Vescovi drilled a 3, Springer slammed one home, and Johnson nailed a jumper after the Alex Reese layup that made it a one-score game. John Petty Jr.’s first 3 of the game ended the run, but Johnson continued his impressive first half with a hard-earned layup a couple of possessions later to put the Vols up, 32-24, with 6:23 left in the first half. The Vols’ offense was cooking at this point, evidenced by their 5-of-6 mark from the field over the last eight possessions.

It looked like Johnson tweaked his ankle at one point, but he continued to make plays for the team. Another layup gave Tennessee a 36-24 lead, which was its biggest of the game at this point. It was a tale of two different offenses at this point, as well.

Tennessee was on a 13-3 run over the last 4:26 of the first half while Bama was on a 3:11 scoring drought that featured a 1-of-8 mark over the last nine shots. The Vols’ defense had come to play. Quinerly finally helped the Tide’s offense correct course with a layup to make it a 36-26 game with 3:36 to go in the first half.

Bama was able to cut Tennessee’s lead to five with the help of the game’s fourth 7-0 run, but the Vols closed out the first half on a strong 5-0 run. Tennessee led 40-31 going into halftime, but it was clear this fight was far from over.

Johnson had a brilliant first half with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Tennessee’s defense held Alabama to 35.3% shooting from the floor and the Vols’ offense was able to knock down 47.1% of their own shots. The key here was turnovers. Tennessee forced Alabama into 12 first-half turnovers and was able to get 14 points out of them. Bama’s first half consisted of a 35.0% scoring rate compared to a 30.0% turnover rate.

Tennessee’s defense also held the Crimson Tide to almost eight scoreless minutes in the first half. But all Alabama needed to do was clean up the mistakes and get the 3-pointers to start falling and everything could change.

The Vols came out of halftime looking the No. 1 seed, while Alabama looked happy to just be there. The Tide didn’t get its first bucket of the second half until the 18:00 mark, but the Vols kept scoring and eventually built a 15-point lead —their largest at the time— and led, 48-33, with 16:56 left in the game.

But that lead dissipated quickly. A 10-0 run over a 4:05 span cut Tennessee’s lead to 48-43. The Vols were in the middle of a 4:25 scoring drought and had turned the ball over five times during that span. Both offenses essentially switched places, with Bama’s offense starting to heat up.

Bama’s defense was doing its job, as well. The unit was able to force another turnover a few possessions later and a Jones layup made it a 48-45 game with 12:31 to go.

The run grew to 14-0, the drought extended to 5:21, and Bama made it a 48-47 game before a Springer 3 ended it all and extended the Vols’ lead to 51-47. Turnovers were killing both teams. Both teams combined for 33 of them in just a little over 29 minutes of play. At this point, it seemed like whomever made the least mistakes would be the ones to win the game.

Tennessee was able to hold a multi-score lead over the next few minutes thanks in part to four consecutive missed shots from Alabama and a 2:22 scoring drought. But it didn’t stop Bama from tightening things up. A Reese 3 pulled Bama within one possession of tying the game and two Keon Ellis free throws made it a 57-56 game with 6:54 to go.

Springer’s bucket put the Vols up, 59-56, but consecutive Bama buckets gave the Tide a 60-59 lead, which was their first lead of the game since the opening minute. Two Vescovi free throws put the Vols back in front, 61-60 and it became clear at that moment that this game was going to be a nail-biter over the final minutes.

Bama had a chance to retake the lead, but Jones couldn’t hit both free throws. It didn’t matter, however, as Ellis drilled a 3 on the Tide’s next possession to put Bama up, 64-61, with 4:02 left in the game.

The Vols were able to make it a 67-65 game with 1:30 left despite missing seven straight shots, but Quinerly hit a layup to push it to 69-65 with under a minute left. Yves Pons came through and drained a 3 from the top of the arc, however, to make it a 69-68 Alabama lead with :43 to go.

Tennessee had to get a stop on the next possession. A Bama bucket wouldn’t automatically seal the deal, but it would certainly make things exponentially more difficult for the Vols.

The Vols did just that. Stout defense forced Jones to not only miss his shot attempt, but Jones fouled Davonte Gaines fighting for the ball, giving the Vols a chance to take the lead. Gaines couldn’t hit either attempt from the charity stripe, however, and Tennessee remained down, 69-68, with :15.5 left in the game.

Tennessee was forced to foul Quinerly on the next possession. Unlike Gaines, he hit both free throws to put Bama up, 71-68, with :15 to go.

Tennessee couldn’t recover and went on to lose, 73-68. The Vols will now patiently wait to find out their seeding for the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

You can check out the final score and stats here.