KNOXVILLE – It was fitting that Tennessee needed a defensive stop from Jarnell Stokes to hold on for a 54-53 win over Alabama (12-7, 4-2 SEC) on Saturday afternoon.
The sophomore forward was the one who put the Vols (10-8, 2-4 SEC) in position to even have a chance with 15 points and a career-high 18 rebounds.
Trailing by one, Alabama guard Trevor Lacey dribbled into the corner as Stokes switched off to help guard him. Lacey went up for a shot attempt, there was contact between he and Stokes, but no foul was called as the clock expired.
“Coach [Martin] called it,” Stokes said of Alabama’s final possession. “He told us exactly what play they were going to run. I just want to thank him for giving me confidence to switch on the play. I thought they would call a foul. I knew I didn’t jump, but a lot of those calls go in the guards favor.”
When asked to clarify his thought on the play, Stokes quickly said that he didn’t believe there was a foul on the play.
There will no doubt be a mix of opinions on the play. The few Alabama fans mixed in the orange-clad crowd of 18,791 clearly didn't agree with it. Alabama coach Anthony Grant was visibly shaking his head as he exited the court, but said in his postgame press conference that he would need to see the replay again to make a judgement.
Martin smiled and said it was a “great call” when asked about it in postgame.
Regardless of that call, UT might not have been in position to make it without Stokes’ strong overall performance. He was two days removed from scoring just six points and grabbing five rebounds in a 62-56 loss at Ole Miss.
His layup at the 3:31 mark capped a 6-0 Tennessee run that gave the Vols their first lead since the opening moments of the game at 48-47. He then had a steal on the ensuing defensive possession and followed that up with another bucket to increase the lead to 50-47. A 3-pointer from Lacey on the next possession tied the game, but Alabama was never able to regain the lead after Stokes’ four-point spurt.
"That's the Jarnell that can be a special player,” Martin said. “He rebounded and was physical. … You couldn't take him off the floor.”
Added Stokes on his career day rebounding: “I wanted to be more aggressive going to the boards. Even if I didn’t get the ball, I wanted to be more aggressive on the boards – that’s something I haven’t been doing this year.”
In total, Tennessee won the rebounding battle 37-22 and held a 36-24 edge in points in the paint.
Stokes did it all with just two fouls as well. The 6-8, 270-pounder has been plagued by foul trouble in recent games. He played just 21 minutes in Tennessee’s loss at Alabama on Jan. 12. Martin called the league office this week to discuss how Stokes, who is one of the largest players in the league, is officiated.
Perhaps that conversation paid dividends on Saturday.
“He was able to stay out of foul trouble today,” Grant said of Stokes. “If he can do that for his team on a consistent basis, obviously this was a physical game today, he's a huge factor when he's able to do that. He had his handprints all over the game today."
Jordan McRae, the team’s leading scorer coming into the game, led the Vols with 17 points, but also had four turnovers while trying to deal with Alabama’s pressure defense. Reserve point guard Trae Golden only had three points, but his two free throws with 32 seconds remaining extended UT’s lead to 54-50.
Golden went on to miss the front end of a one-and-one situation with 15 seconds left, but Stokes’ defensive play prevented that from costing the Vols the game.
Freshman swingman Armani Moore made his first career start and finished with four points and seven boards. Moore has averaged 8.7 rebounds in his last three contests, adding to his growing reputation as one of the better perimeter rebounders in the conference.
"Armani competed,” Martin said. “Tough, tough young guy. He’s all over the place; accepts challenges.”
The Vols have a lot of work to do to dig out of their 1-4 start in league play, but a win over Alabama, which came into the contest on a four-game winning streak, is a good start.
Tennessee’s next five opponents – Vanderbilt (twice), Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina – are a combined 8-14 in SEC play. The Vols have a chance to get back to .500 in the conference with a good stretch before big games against Kentucky, Missouri and Florida loom in the final stretch of the season.
"I expect them to continue doing what they're doing,” Martin said of the plans for the immediate future. “We capitalized on a few minor things here and there. Mental prep continues, but they've been putting the work in, and when you start seeing results it pushes you on. You play tough games, but tonight it bounced our way."
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga