Three consecutive late-game steals — two by Andrew Steele and a third by Trevor Releford — enabled the Tide to turn a 56-55 lead into a 62-55 bulge and the hosts held on to nip Tennessee 68-65 at Coleman Coliseum.
Speaking on the post-game show, Vol head man Cuonzo Martin praised his team's effort, noting: "I told 'em after the game: That's the Tennessee team I'm used to seeing — playing hard and competing. We controlled the glass but we came up short. Down the stretch the game had some key turnovers, and they (Tide) capitalized on 'em."
With Jordan McRae replacing Trae Golden as the starting point guard, Tennessee led 20-12 early and 28-24 at halftime. The Vols were up 55-52 on a steal and drive by Golden with 4:52 remaining but the roof was about to cave in.
Two free throws by Levi Randolph and two more by Steele gave Bama a 56-55 lead with 3:41 left.
That's when the Vols gave the ball away and gave the game away.
With Bama trapping at midcourt, Steele stole the ball from McRae and made a layup. Steele then stole the ball from Josh Richardson and cashed in with two free throws. Releford then stole the ball from Richardson and scored on a layup to cap a 10-0 spurt that turned the 55-52 deficit into a 62-55 lead.
"Throughout the game I thought we did a good job," Martin said of his team's ball-handling. "But, for some reason, the last three minutes of the game we didn't take care of the basketball."
Anticipating its use, Tennessee had spent a good portion of Friday night's practice working against the halfcourt trap.
"We worked exactly on that both sides of the floor," Martin said. "But what happens is, you get caught up in the moment, with the adrenalin and emotions of the game, and stuff like that happens. But you've still got to do a better job of being strong, stepping through (the double-team) and making the pass."
Despite the 62-55 deficit, Tennessee gave the crowd a suspenseful finish. Golden scored on a 12-footer and a three-point play to narrow the gap to 62-60. Trevor Lacey scored twice as Bama went up 66-60 with 1:15 remaining. McRae got a three-point play and a five-footer that pulled the Vols within a point at 66-65 with 7.7 seconds left. Releford hit two free throws with 7.5 seconds left, however, and Golden's potential game-tying 3-pointer with one second left was long.
Coming off back-to-back 26-point efforts, McRae led the Vols in scoring for the third game in a row with 21 points. He committed five turnovers, however, in his first start at point guard after playing almost exclusively on the wing previously.
"I thought Jordan did a really good job running the point in his first true game," Martin said. "The offense flowed the way we needed it to. We just didn't capitalize on some free throws and taking care of the ball in certain situations."
Richardson and Golden chipped in 8 points each but Richardson, like McRae, was guilty of five turnovers.
Tennessee shot a respectable 47.3 percent (26 of 55) from the field and 33.3 percent (5 of 15) from 3. The Vols dominated the backboards 40-25 but made just 50 percent from the foul line (8 of 16) and committed 16 turnovers. Ten of the turnovers were off Bama steals.
Trevor Lacey and Releford scored 15 points each to pace the Tide, now 9-6 overall and 1-1 in SEC play. Randolph added 12 points and Steele 11. After shooting just 26.7 percent (8 of 30) in the first half, the Tide shot a sizzling 62.5 percent (15 of 24) in the second. That's largely because Bama was converting Vol turnovers into transition buckets.
One bright spot for Tennessee was 6-foot-5 freshman Armani Moore, who came off the bench to contribute 7 points, 4 rebounds and zero turnovers in 21 minutes. He scarcely played the previous two weeks due to erratic play on offense and defense.
"He did a lot of fouls on defense," Martin explained. "He had a stretch where he might've had two minutes in one game and had three fouls. Offensively, he's very aggressive — which is a good thing — but he was turning the ball over by forcing things. These past two-plus weeks we've really worked with Armani. He didn't lose his confidence.... Armani has a great future in front of him."
Tennessee, losing for the third time in a row, slips to 8-6 overall and 0-2 in SEC play. The Vols will try to break the skid Tuesday night at Kentucky.