The first two weeks of February were pretty trying for Tennessee basketball. The Vols entered the month ranked second nationally before faltering against Florida, Vanderbilt and Missouri— the latter two coming at the buzzer.
But undermanned Tennessee didn’t splinter, rallying to defeat No. 1 Alabama 68-59 at Thompson-Boling Arena Wednesday night.
“After those tough losses, these guys stayed with it,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “They didn’t splinter. They stayed together. They knew other guys had to step up tonight and Jahmai Mashack was terrific defensively — Jonas (Aidoo), Santi (Vescovi). You look at Santi and Z’s (Zakai Zeigler’s) numbers, they were outstanding. But when plays needed to be made, players made plays.”
Tennessee got back on track and earned one of its best wins of the season by doing what it does best. That starts with the high level intensity the Vols played with in the second half of their loss against Missouri and carried over against the Crimson Tide.
“We spoke about it and knew that no matter what we had to get back to being the hardest playing team in the country,” sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler said. “Whether that was on offense or defense we knew we had to get back to that. That’s what brought us back into that game. … We need to bring that every single night and we carried that over tonight.”
That intensity fed into what was one of the best defensive efforts of the season for the nation’s top defensive team. That started with ball pressure where Tennessee’s backcourt made Alabama’s night miserable. Jahvon Quinerly was particularly atrocious, coughing the ball up six times in 17 minutes.
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Tennessee’s ball pressure rattled Alabama early and coughed it up seven times in the first nine minutes on its way to a 19 turnover night which the Vols turned into 26 points.
“It’s all being locked in,” Barnes said.
Then there was the play of Jahmai Mashack. The sophomore was tasked with guarding freshman phenom Brandon Miller for nearly all of his 27 minutes of action. With fellow wings Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips sidelined, Mashack had to shoulder most of the work in defending the SEC’s top scorer.
He, along with the rest of the Vols, did a great job of it. Miller scored 15 points but did so on just four-of-11 shooting from the field, never completely getting going.
“It was a lot of guys that had to go into it. I don’t think one guy shut him down. It was a team effort. And again, it’s not like we shut him down. He got some looks of shots that he can make, so he had some looks. We didn’t shut him down because we didn’t do that,” Barnes said, complimenting the Antioch native the Vols finished runner up for in the recruiting process.
Nate Oats and Alabama’s identity is predicated on shooting layups and three-pointers. The Crimson Tide shot well from the perimeter, making nine-of-24 three-points. Alabama capitalized on a few Tennessee lapses but also hit difficult shots.
While Alabama had success from the perimeter, Tennessee made life extremely difficult at the basket. The Crimson Tide made just six-of-21 shots at the rim in large part due to the play of Jonas Aidoo— who blocked three shots including one that would have pulled Alabama within two late.
“I think our post guys’ defense was outstanding, pushing out there,” Barnes said.
The final numbers were extremely impressive. Tennessee held Alabama to 59 points— 24 points less than its season average while holding the Tide to just .908 points per possession.
Tennessee’s back was against the wall entering its matchup with No. 1 Alabama. The Vols leaned on what they did best to get their mojo back.