UT came out of the gates slow again, but flipped the script on Senior Day.
After another slow start on Saturday against Alabama, but battled back from a 16-point second half deficit to defeat Alabama 59-54.
Here’s five observations from UT’s comeback victory:
Late 3s Fuel Second Half Comeback
Tennessee trailed by as much as 16. But it was late 3-point shooting that saved the day for Tennessee.
Alabama head coach Avery Johnson was surprised at how many contested shots UT made late.
“There were two or three 3s that they made with one or two seconds on the shot clock with one of our guys in their faces,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how often they’ve been making those shots all year, but those are tough 3s. The only thing we could’ve done better was block the shot.”
When UT can play inside-out basketball and knock down outside shots, they become a much better team. The Vols’ rebounding was also crucial down the stretch. UT out-rebounded Alabama 15-5 on the offensive glass.
Barnes said that making shots was big, but UT’s rebounding was an even bigger factor late in the game.
“They were huge, just as big as I think there’s were huge in the first half,” Barnes said. “We think we’ve got guys who can shoot the ball, but what we need to be able to do more with those shots is run those rebounds down.”
Tennessee outscored Alabama 35-14 in the final 18 minutes of the game. In that time, Tennessee hit six 3-pointers, including 3 in the final four minutes. Three of those 3-pointers in the second half came from senior Lew Evans. Tennessee took its first lead of the game on this Admiral Schofield shot, but Alabama quickly answered.
Following a 6-0 run with four minutes left, Bama would go cold, only scoring one point in the last four minutes. Tennessee tacked on 11 to take control and finish of the Tide.
Grant Williams Hasn’t Given Up
Make no mistake about it, Grant Williams is not ready to give up on the 2017 season. The freshman showed his incredible motor and strength in the second half, showing why he’s asserted himself as a leader on this young basketball team.
Johnson was impressed by Williams’ strength against Alabama’s length down low.
“He’s relentless. He’s a young kid that never gives up, he’s never complaining to officials. I’m sure from Coach Barnes’ standpoint he’s a joy to coach.”
Williams scored 8 points in the second half, finishing with 16 and adding 10 rebounds. When UT needed points late, they turned to Williams.
WILLIAMS. 3. LEAD. pic.twitter.com/JMMFJtHl3O
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) March 4, 2017
If you ask Rick Barnes, Williams can still do plenty more to contribute for Tennessee.
“I’m still disappointed in him,” Barnes said. “I’m not kidding you. I think he’s tougher than he’s shown. He’s too emotional, he’s too immature. I think he can be so much better…we thought he could come in here and be the Freshman of the Year in this league.”
But Williams is used to the constructive criticism. He agreed with his coach’s comments after the game
“I have high expectations for myself. I have high expectations for us as a team because we’re a lot better than what we’ve been showing. You take it to heart and you try to show him that you’re not a disappointment.”
Another Slow First Half
In the first half, Alabama couldn’t be stopped from 3-point range. Riley Norris had 13 points on 3-of-3 shooting in the opening 20 minutes. Tennessee was only 6-of-30 from the field in the first half. Grant Williams had eight points, but was only 2-for-7 from the field.
The Crimson Tide were 7-of-9 from 3-point range, helping them pull away early. The second half saw Avery Johnson’s group cool off a bit from behind the arc. Bama was just 1-for-8 in the second half, finishing the game at 47% from 3.
It was hard for Tennessee to bounce back after such a tough start. In a lot of ways, this game mirrored UT’s loss to Vanderbilt. The Vols had chances to get back in front and take over the game late, but got the job done when it mattered.
Williams said it started by playing inside-out and hitting perimeter shots. And it didn’t hurt that those shots were coming from senior Lew Evans.
“When we hit outside shot it opens up the paint. With Lew hitting down shots and fans chanting his name, that was the most fun thing for us. We were excited and just played off of it.”
Evans Comes up Big
Lew Evans played his best game as a Volunteer for his final appearance at Thompson Boling Arena. UT was +16 when Evans was on the court. He had 13 points, none bigger than these 3 to start Tennessee’s run with four minutes to play.
LEWWW makes it a two point game! pic.twitter.com/DhclqFUzDl
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) March 4, 2017
Lew has always been instrumental in getting his team organized and doing the little things to help energize Tennessee. That’s why he’s led the Vols in plus/minus all season. Saturday’s game was the perfect way for Evans to go out.
Barnes said Evans was instrumental for Tennessee on his final game in Knoxville.
“His defense was outstanding. He did a lot of really good things for us. I’m proud of him.”
Evans, who said he still has a headache from when his front teeth got knocked out against LSU, praised his team’s ability to fight.
“I want to be a big impact in winning. That’s why I chose to come here and I’ve done that for a lot of games. Those guys want to fight every night for each other,” Evans said.
Evans and Barnes’ interaction has been well documented as a love-hate relationship all season. But Evans was complimentary of his head coach for encouraging him with tough love throughout the year.
“He just goes at me and tries to make me better. I really respect him.”
Tough Matchup Awaits in the SEC Tourney
With Tennessee’s win and Texas A&M’s loss at Kentucky, UT will be the No. 9 seed in the SEC Tournament. For a young team that has faltered down the stretch, Tennessee will need to muster up quite a bit of energy for the tournament next week.
When asked about his tournament expectations, Grant Williams’ simply said “Win.”
“Nothing else to it. We’ve got to win and extend the season as long as we can because we’re having a good time, so let’s keep it going.”
With its win, Tennessee avoids Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament thanks to its win over Florida. So thanks to a dynamite second half, UT will not have to play the hottest team in the SEC.
UT will start tournament play next Thursday from Nashville against either Ole Miss or Georgia.