We’re off to the SEC Championship!
The Tide opened up the first half with some nice passing movement and a quick score, but then struggled to generate much offense for a bit while Tennessee went on a 9-0 run. The Volunteers, particularly Keon Johnson, apparently put a magnet in the ball and the rim on their end of the court, as it felt like they couldn’t miss. There were shots that hit the corners of the rim and weird spots on the backboard that all just kept bouncing around and eventually rolling in.
The Tide also got called for some charges early on, adding to their struggles with offensive rhythm.
After that rough first 5 minutes, though, the Alabama defense really tightened up and they started hitting enough shots to get back within striking distance. Jahvon Quinnerly got 7 straight points to get Alabama to only a 2-point deficit about 10 minutes into the half, but Tennessee just kept scoring just enough to stay about 5-6 points ahead for the most part.
The Tide did get into a bit of another slump near the end of the half and trailed by 12, but a big effort from John Petty (both offensive and defensively) cut it back to 5, and then the Volunteers hit a few shots right at the end to go into halftime with a 40-31 lead.
Unfortunately for Alabama, the second half started off the way the first half ended, as the Volunteers climbed out to a 15 point lead on the backs of a series of horrendous Alabama turnovers. The Tide was trying desperately to push the pace and get some fast breaks down the court, but we found out why these guys were basketball players and not competing with Bryce Young for QB this spring: They just kept getting picked off on the deep balls.
In a huge credit to Coach Oats and the mentality he’s brought to this program, the team never folded or got frustrated. They were struggling to hit shots, so they instead redoubled their effort on defense and absolutely stymied the Volunteer offense that had been shooting so well in the first half.
Alabama’s defense forced a 5-minute scoring drought, letting the offense claw their way back into the game to go from a 15-point deficit to a 2-point game. A couple of offensive charges finally got called against Tennessee instead of Alabama, which really helped out.
The teams traded points with the Tide trailing by 1-2 possession for a little bit, and the Quinnerly decided it was time to flex that former 5-star recruit status. He lobbed up a surprise ally-oop to Herb Jones for a huge dunk, then turned around and make a crazy wizard finger roll shot between like 72 defenders under the basket, giving the Tide a 1 point lead.
With 4 minutes left, Keon Ellis hit a huge 3-point shot to give the Tide their first 2-possesion lead of the game, and they never relinquished control after that. Quinnerly made a couple more tough layups to keep Alabama ahead, and when it came to the waning seconds, he and Ellis both made all 4 of their free throw attempts when the Volunteers tried to foul to save some time off the clock.
Alabama shot the 3-pointer poorly all day, only hitting 25% of their 28 attempts, and they also had 8 of their shots blocked to go along with 19 turnovers. Despite the overall offensive struggles, guys like Quinnerly and Herb Jones made a huge difference in the game by driving to the basket and keeping consistent pressure on the Tennessee defense that way. It was great to see that, with the three not falling and Tennessee making a bunch of ridiculous shots in the first half, Alabama kept their composure, turned up the heat on defense, and did enough under the basket to make a huge comeback and ice away the last minute of the game.
Jones, the SEC Player of the Year, was the star of the show on this one. He led the way with 21 points, got his double-double with 13 rebounds (7 of which were offensive rebounds), a team-high 4 assists (including a brilliant behind-the-back pass under the basket), and 3 steals. His play forced a ridiculous 13 fouls on Tennessee, and he led the way with 12 free throw attempts.
Coming of the bench, Quinnerly actually played the 3rd most minutes behind Jones and Petty. He added 19 points while shooting 62% and adding a couple of nice assists. His defensive effort was likely the best I’ve seen from him this year, so coupling that with him also being by far the Tide’s best ball-handler and shooter on the day made him a huge asset for the team.
Keon Ellis got some extra minutes with Josh Primo sidelined with his knee injury, and rewarded the team with 7 points and 8 rebounds. His three point shot came at a huge moment in the game, his first two free throws came on a dunk attempt where he drew a frustration fould from Yves Ponz, and his final two points were his stone-cold free throw shots to put Tennessee away in the final seconds when they had a chance to win if he had missed.
John Petty struggled offensively, but he made an impact all game long on defense, getting three steals and just generally using his long arms to mess up the Vols on a whole bunch of rebound and loose ball situations. Alex Reese also had some positive contributions in limited minutes, getting 9 points of his own while adding 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a steal.
In years past, Alabama would have faltered about 5 minutes into the second half in a game like this where all of their shots just kept bouncing out of the rim and it felt like Tennessee couldn’t miss if they tried. So seeing their competitive mentality take over as they took control of the game in the final 10 minutes to make a huge comeback run and close out the game while forcing the Volunteers to miss 9 of their last 10 shots was an amazing display of dominance and perseverance from team that has solidified itself as a legitimate top-10 team in the nation.
Tomorrow, Alabama will have the final test of facing the winner of Arkansas and LSU for the SEC Championship. May they bring the same fire we saw today (along with a little better 3-point shooting).