The Crimson Tide basketball team traveled to Knoxville with several players battling flu symptoms to face one of the SEC's elite teams in one of college basketball's biggest arenas, which was packed to the rafters with orange-clad, Rocky Top-singing Tennessee Volunteers fans. To be be fair, the Vols were also far from 100%, as they were forced to play without their leading scorer who was out with an injured ankle.
The players who were out on the court took part in one of the most physical games I've ever seen in the SEC. How Bama survived in that environment against that team with everything going against us in the second half and emerged still standing to claim an emotional 65-60 win in overtime, I'll never know. What I do know is that after sleeping on it overnight, I'm sticking with my initial post-game assessment: this was the biggest Alabama basketball win in the last five years--the last time we won a March Madness game.
Even with Hopson sidelined, I think we all knew Bama was going to need something special to escape Rocky Top with the win. I assumed that "something special" would need to be a hot shooting night or a collapse on the part of Tennessee. In reality what we got was a feeble shooting performance on offense and a Volunteer team that came out of the locker room after halftime with the most tenacious intensity we've seen from an opponent all season, as they whipped the huge crowd into a frenzy that would have rattled the best teams in the country.
Despite these factors, this Alabama team indeed came up with something special in the final 9 minutes of regulation, and then somehow kept it up for 5 more minutes of overtime play. It was with 9 minutes left that Tennessee freshman sensation Tobias Harris hit a runner to cap off a huge Tennessee comeback that saw the Vols erase an 11-point halftime deficit and take a lead over the Tide. The Vols and their fans were riding sky-high at that moment, and it looked for all intents and purposes like Bama was going to be overwhelmed by a hot team in an energized, hostile atmosphere.
These Alabama players didn't let that happen, though. The Tide responded by outscoring the Vols 11-4 over the next five minutes of the game, giving Bama a 6-point lead when Andrew Steele hit a short jumper with 4:29 left in regulation. It would be the last shot Bama would make in the game.
That's right, Bama did not make a single shot over the last 9:29 of game play. And won. At Tennessee. Talk about something special. The Bama defense obviously was clutch, most impressively by never letting the intensity and focus let up on that end while the lead slowly slipped away with missed shot after missed shot on the other end.
Even when Bama's defense got the final stop they needed by forcing a deep Melvin Goins 3-pointer at the end of regulation to force overtime, you wouldn't have bet against Tennessee's superior depth or the momentum they were carrying from the second half when the overtime period started. The Tide found a way to force 4 Tennessee turnovers in the overtime period, though, and was beyond clutch in going 10-for-10 from the free throw line to put the game away, thus overcoming a massive Tennessee rebounding edge (20 offensive boards to 7 for Bama) and a miserable second-half shooting performance to somehow pull out an epic win on Rocky Top.
Player commentary below the jump...
The most outstanding player for Alabama in this epic win was a player who literally woke up in the morning making mental mistakes. Sophomore small forward Tony Mitchell was late to the team breakfast at the hotel, costing him his spot in the starting lineup at tip-off. At key points in the second half he also made some critical mental errors that cost Bama dearly, including launching a 30-foot air-ball because he failed to notice the shot clock reset. Mental mistakes or not, though, Mitchell was in beast-mode throughout this game. For the second straight game, he set a career high in scoring after canning two clutch 3-pointers. His 24 points came on 9-of-18 shooting, a percentage any coach would love to see. He was also a huge help in handling the ball out on the perimeter against Tennessee's tenacious man-to-man defense, helping to reduce the turnovers the Tide committed. He was also very good, as always, on the boards (6 rebounds) and on defense (3 blocks, 2 steals). If Mitchell wasn't already in the conversation for All-SEC honors, he will be after nailing four 3-pointers in the last two games to extend his scoring numbers.
Usually a 1:4 assist-turnover ratio would be indicative of a bad night for a point guard, but not so for freshman Trevor Releford. Bless his heart, we nearly rode young Trevor into the ground in this one, as he played 42 minutes, including all 20 minutes of the second half and all 5 minutes of overtime. In fact, my biggest fear heading into overtime was the fatigue factor for Releford, who looked worn down by the end of regulation. Instead, he navigated the offense through 42 minutes of game action against probably the most aggressive half-court defense we've seen all year, save perhaps Purdue's. The Vols were harassing our ball-handlers as soon as they crossed the half-court stripe. They were successful in limiting Releford's assist numbers, but they never rattled him. What's more, he knocked down a big 3-pointer in the first half and came out with 13 big points in what was an otherwise low-scoring game. I hope Coach Grant gave him the day off today.
It wasn't a highlight performance for Bama's leading scorer, but it was a gutsy one. JaMychal Green was battling heavy flu-like symptoms during the game, and he was a mere 3-of-12 from the floor while committing 4 crucial turnovers, including two at the end of regulation that gave the Vols a chance to win with a final shot. That said, in probably the biggest testament yet to the way Green has matured and become mentally tougher, he kept his head and gutted out extended minutes late in the game without fouling, which allowed him to lead the team in overtime by grabbing big rebounds and coolly draining all 6 of his free throw attempts in the extra period. Considering Green's worst statistical game since his early-season suspension came on a night in which he led us to a win in overtime while fighting flu symptoms, I for one am willing to give him a pass.
Senior forward Chris Hines played his "junkyard dog" role to perfection in this one. He led the team with 8 rebounds, led the game with 5 steals on defense, and played a whopping 38 minutes before fouling out on a questionable call (one of many questionable calls against both teams). He only scored 4 points, which is pretty typical for him, one of the reasons he gets very little love from the media and fans. We are going to miss him dearly next year. If you don't believe me now, you will then.
The biggest unsung hero in this game had to have been Senario Hillman. He scored 8 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the floor and added 2 assists and 2 steals. Two of his baskets came in the crucial 11-4 run that Bama used to successfully respond to UT's reclaiming the lead late in the second half, including a huge rebound that he turned into a one-man fastbreak in which he went coast to coast to quiet the crowd and spark the Tide's run. The senior guard never quite became the complete player that his recruiting hype built him up to be, but he's settled in very nicely to his role as sixth man on this team. As a sixth man, you can't really argue with what Hillman has given this team this year, and as the only four-year veteran on this team, no one deserves the success the program is having right now more than him.
Charvez Davis played 35 minutes in this game, but was almost invisible on the offensive end. In fact he only got off two shot attempts and failed to score. Clearly the UT coaching staff made it a big priority to lock him down. Even though they were successful in doing so, his presence on the court always forces opposing coaches to stretch out their defenses, which in turn opens up more opportunities for us to score in the paint. Davis also has much improved this season in his ball-handling and defense, which leaves the coaching staff confident in leaving him in for the majority of the game. Like Mitchell, he helped out tremendously in handling the ball against Tennessee's pressure defense, only committing 1 turnover for the game.
Andrew Steele got the start in place of Mitchell, though he only played 18 minutes in the contest. His biggest contributions came on the boards, though he also hit Bama's final shot with 4:29 to go in regulation. The only other player to see game action was backup point guard Ben Eblen, who had a forgettable night with only 3 minutes of action and a costly turnover on his stat sheet.
Bama now finds itself at #1 in the SEC, in what is shaping up to be a race with the Florida Gators for the conference championship. With this big road win now behind us, though, an even more formidable road test looms this week in Vanderbilt's Memorial Gymnasium, a.k.a. "Memorial Fortress", where the 'Dores very rarely ever lose. In fact, Bama has not won a game there since 1990, despite making the trip ten times since.
It's a good thing that the Tide will get a bit of extra time off before that game, as it will be played on Thursday night on ESPN. The extra time off should hopefully give the players a chance to rest up after this physically and emotionally draining win, and also give everyone a chance to get healthy. Nearly every player on the team has been forced to battle illness over the last two weeks, so hopefully all that will have run its course by Thursday and we'll have everyone healthy for the assault on Memorial Fortress.
Despite the extra time off, though, now is not the time to rest on our laurels. Obviously, we'll be underdogs at Vanderbilt, but looking just beyond that we'll have only one day off before hosting a very dangerous Ole Miss team on Saturday. We can probably get away with losing at Vandy and still be in the SEC title and NCAA bubble discussion, but we absolutely can not lose to anyone save possibly Georgia at home. We have to simply keep improving and keep playing with the kind of passion we showed in Knoxville last night. We're trending in the right direction and within reach of making a season-long comeback of miraculous proportions, but we're also one or two let-downs away from all that crashing down. We absolutely must stay focused on each and every game.
Do that, and our ever-growing dreams could become reality.