Tennessee’s 73-68 loss to top-seeded Alabama in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament on Saturday is a game that Vols sophomore forward Davonte Gaines would like to forget as quickly as possible.
Over the last several minutes of the game, Tennessee’s defense struggled to slow down Herb Jones as Santiago Vescovi continued to get switched on to the SEC Player of the Year. Vescovi was simply out-manned by the 6-foot-8 Jones, so Rick Barnes substituted Gaines into the game in an attempt to get a much-needed defensive stop.
Gaines checked in following a critical Yves Pons three to cut Alabama’s lead to 69-68 with 43 seconds remaining. His job was simply to get a stop against Jones. Gaines did just that, forcing Jones into a missed shot and then cleaning up the possession with a rebound.
“We put him in to do the job and he did the job,” Barnes said. “He played great post defense. Came up with a big rebound. We knew exactly what they were going to do. We knew the other matchups we wanted to have. We knew he would fight his heart out. We knew he would guard him. He did probably four different times in that one possession. He came up with it.”
Gaines coming down with the rebound is where everything began to go wrong for the 6-foot-7 wing player. Jones fouled Gaines in the midst of bringing down the rebound, thus sending him to the free throw line with the Vols trailing by just one. Gaines missed both free throw attempts before Alabama went on to close out the game.
“We all feel bad for him he didn’t knock those down,” Barnes said. “But I’m proud of him because he did the job that we asked him to go in there and do. His hard work and determination got us that possession.
“Tough situation to put anybody in when they haven’t played. That’s how much confidence we have in him. He’s so loved by his teammates, everyone is hurting for him. Yet I’m proud of him because he did the job we needed done. Again, we knew exactly what they were going to do. He went in and he shut it down.”
Gaines hadn’t attempted a free throw since Jan. 13 in a game against LSU in Baton Rouge as he has played sparingly this season. He was 10-for-18 at the charity stripe prior to missing the two free throws against Alabama. Gaines tweeted after the game that he would “get it back” because he “owes it” to his teammates.
I WILL GET IT BACK …. I OWE IT TO MY TEAMMATES ‼️
— Ticket “Hollywood” Gaines (@TheRealTicket0) March 13, 2021
“You ask our team who day in and day out you know is going to play his heart out, give you everything, it’s (Gaines),” Barnes said. “He plays so hard. There’s times that we’d love to get him out there, but then there’s times that we struggle with scoring which makes it difficult. In that situation, we knew we had to get a stop. Again, we said we’re going to put arguably two of our best defenders in that situation on that switch. Again, he did the job. Player of the Year. He did the job. He guarded him as well as anybody four different times. Then he cleaned it up. Came out with it.”
“Like coach said in the locker room, I think he did a great job,” Vescovi added. “He did more than enough on the court. He forced a turnover, then he got fouled. I mean, free throws, just part of the game. But we would have never gotten to that point if he wasn’t on the court. I really got to give him credit for that.”
Tennessee now awaits it’s NCAA Tournament draw after splitting a pair of games in Nashville. The Vols will find out their fate on Sunday evening.