In the first half, No. 3 Tennessee was well in control of their game against Alabama. The Vols led from the opening made basket, and they consistently held anywhere between an 8-12 point lead over the Tide.
The Vols pushed their lead to 15 points after Admiral Schofield sank a pair of free throws with 1:03 to go in the half. It looked like Tennessee could be well on their way to another big victory in SEC play.
Then, Riley Norris drained a three with 35 seconds left in the half, and Alabama cut Tennessee’s lead to 44-32 before halftime.
At the time, that shot didn’t seem like a big deal. But it sparked Alabama’s offense as they headed into the second half.
The Tide opened up the second half of play on a 13-0 run and took a 45-44 lead with 16:39 to play in the game. Instead of calling a timeout and trying to regroup his team, Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes tried to let his team play through it.
Then he called one after he didn’t like his team’s response.
“When they came out in the second half and started coming back, I told the coaches, ‘I am not going to call a timeout. We need this to see how we respond,'” Barnes said after the game. “And then I called a timeout because we didn’t respond when we needed to.
“You have to give Alabama credit. We came down and we were way too impatient on the offensive end.”
Tennessee would finally make a bucket after missing their first five shots of the second half, and they took the lead back, 48-45. After that point, the lead would exchange hands four more times, and the two teams would tie up the game three other times. Alabama was spurred on by hot shooting, mainly from three. John Petty nailed five of his seven three-pointers in the second half, and Alabama as a team was shooting well over 60 percent in the second half late into the half.
The Vols only shot 29.4 percent in the second half, and they made just one of their seven shots from behind the three-point line. Tennessee finished the game with a 43.8 percent shooting percentage after coming into today’s game having made 58.3 percent of their field goals in SEC play.
“As much as I hate to say it, we were forced to win this game, but we needed a game like this,” Barnes stated. “We are going to see what we can learn from it because this is two games in a row now where we gotten beat in the second half.”
Earlier this week, Tennessee hosted Arkansas and got out-scored and out-played in the second half. The Vols held a 21-point lead at halftime against the Razorbacks, but they got lax on defense in the second half and let Arkansas outscore them 53-51 in the final half of play.
Luckily for the Vols, they had built up a huge lead in the first half, and most of the Razorbacks’ points in the second half came later in the game. But Barnes said at the time he didn’t want that effort to snowball and cost his team down the line.
On Saturday, it almost did.
“I don’t think we have come out and executed. It comes back to defense,” Barnes added. “I don’t think we are as good of a defensive team as we were a year ago at this time, but we are definitely a better offensive team.
“A year ago, we found ways to win defensively, and that’s what we did in the last couple of minutes tonight.”
Tennessee’s defense tightened up when it mattered most on Saturday. Jordan Bowden was assigned to guard Petty late in the second half, and after he scored 20 points in the first 11 minutes of the second half, he was held scoreless for the final nine. And that was the big tipping point.
After a Donta Hall dunk gave Alabama a 61-58 lead with 9:27 left in the game, the Vols’ defense finally started to gain some traction. The Tide would go on to score just seven points in the final nine minutes of the game after scoring 29 points in the first 10 and a half minutes of the second half. Alabama made just two of their nine field goal attempts in the final nine minutes, and they only made three of their seven free throws in that same stretch.
While Alabama’s offense finally went cold, Tennessee’s offense found a way to put up enough points to grab a lead and keep it.
Admiral Schofield hit a jumper to tie the game at 65-all with 2:51 to go, and he would hit another bucket on the Vols’ next possession to grab a 67-65 lead. Tennessee wouldn’t relinquish the lead after that point.
Tennessee started out the second half out of sorts. But by the end of it, they composed themselves enough to get the victory.
“At the end of the game, we had a much better focus, and you either do or don’t,” Barnes said. “If you don’t have good focus, you just won’t win at all.”