The 19th ranked Alabama basketball team opened their defense of the SEC Championship on Wednesday night against #14 Tennessee, and made a valiant comeback at the end to beat the Vols by a score of 73-68. Bama is now 10-3 including 1-0 in the SEC, while UT fell to 9-3, 0-1. Grad transfer Noah Gurley played his best game in Crimson with a double-double of 20 points and 10 big rebounds. Tennessee was playing without two of their best players in Kennedy Chandler and John Fulkerson, who both tested positive for Covid. Chandler leads the team with 14 points per game and 5.3 assists. Fulkerson leads the Vols in rebounds at 6.6 per game and scores at a 10 point per game clip.
Coach Nate Oats used the same starting five of Juwan Gary, Charles Bediako, Jaden Shackelford, Jahvon Quinerly , and Keon Ellis. However, Oats quickly brought Gurley and Keon Ambrose-Hylton off the bench after seeing little effort toward defense and rebounding down low. Both teams were shooting poorly, and did all game, but Tennessee used a spurt to take a 33-23 lead with about four minutes left in the half. Gurley hit a three to help close the gap and Shackelford finally connected from deep to tie the game at 33-33 at the break. The Tide closed the half on a 10-0 run. Gurley had 10 points and Quinerly had nine.
Alabama shot 14-30 for 46% in the first half including 4-16 from three point range and only 1-4 from the free throw line. The Vols were 13-32 for 40% with 4-13 from deep and 3-4 from the free throw stripe. Turnovers were a problem for Bama with JD Davison committing five by himself. On several occasions Davison would drive the lane, seem to have an open look, but would turn to pass out to three point line, and toss the ball right to a Tennessee player.
The Tide started the same five in the second half. The teams traded scores for a couple of minutes before Tennessee pushed to a 43-38 lead with 15:43 left in the game. Bama fought back and tied the game at 45-45, and later at 51-51 with 10:02 remaining. The Vols held a lead of 60-55 with seven minutes left and had hit 16-18 free throws at that point while the Tide was only 11-17 at the time.
Keon Ellis finally made a three point basket with 4:04 left to pull the Tide within 63-60. Shackelford hit a clutch corner three with 1:51 left to tie the game at 65-65. Later Shack drove the lane and somehow made a circus shot for a two point lead. The Vols came down and hit a three with under a minute left to take the lead 68-67. Ellis then drilled another long three to give Bama a 70-68 with 41 seconds left. UT missed at the other end and Davison grabbed the rebound and was fouled. The freshman hit 1-2 at the line for a three point lead with 28 seconds left. Gurley blocked a shot in the lane, grabbed the rebound, was fouled, and then made both free shots for the final margin. Tennessee missed at the buzzer and the Tide had the hard fought 73-68 victory.
Bama was only 12-30 shooting in the second half including 3-15 from three point range. Those three makes were all in the last four minutes after starting 0-12, and 13-17 on free throws. For the game the team finished 26-60 for 43%, 7-31 from three for 22% and 14-21 for 66% from the stripe. The Tide finished with 43 rebounds, 11 assists, seven steals, three blocks, and 15 turnovers- eight by Davison alone-. UT shot only 9-31 in the half (29%), 3-16 from deep for 19% and 14-16 from the line. Overall the Vols were 22-63 for 35%, 7-29 for 24% from three, but hit 85% of their free throws at 17-20. Tennessee had 35 rebounds, 10 assists, 10 steals, two blocks, and 11 turnovers.
Individually Gurley was the star of the night with his best game in Crimson. The Furman transfer looked much more like the player the team expected with his 20 points and 10 rebounds while playing 32 minutes. Quinerly tallied 18 pints on 7-13 shooting but was only 1-7 from three point range, and added four rebounds and three assists. Shackelford scored 12 on 5-17 shooting, 2-10 from three, and also had four rebounds. Ellis came alive when needed most and finished with nine points, nine rebounds, and five assists. Davison had five points, three assists, and six rebounds. Ellis had a +11 plus/minus, while Gurley and Davison were both +8. Gurley definitley earned himself more minutes and probably should be inserted back in the starting lineup for Bediako.
To win a game when not playing your best is always good. The Tide gutted out a poor shooting performance by never letting up on defense, hitting the boards with a vengeance and closing the game on a 16-5 run. After the game Oats said that “we have been preaching defensive intensity since the Davidson loss, really since the Memphis loss, and it finally didn't fall on deaf ears.” Oats went on to say that he told the guys at the half that “you guys who have not been here have no idea how hard you have to play on every defensive possession to win games in this league.” The coach praised Gurley for his great play and was pleased with Ellis, Quinerly, and Shackelford not letting their offensive woes affect their defense. Darius Miles who has been the first or second player off the bench for most of the season was dressed and on the bench but never saw action. Oats said “Darius was available but we choose not to play him until we see better practice habits.”
Things don't get any easier. The Tide next travels to Gainesville to play Florida on January 5th in a 6 p.m. CT tip.