NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Given the opportunity to all but wrap up a spot in the field of 68 of the NCAA tournament, the Vols couldn’t pull out a victory against No. 4 seed Alabama in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament on Friday.
Now they wait.
It will be sweaty Selection Sunday for a UT squad that failed to take matters into its own hands in a 58-48 loss to the Crimson Tide.
“I think it’s going to be terrible,” said guard Josh Richardson, who led the team with 16 points, of the pending 48-hour wait before the final brackets are announced on Sunday. “I just want to know if we’re in or out right now.”
ESPN bracket analyst Joe Lunardi has the Vols (20-12) as one of the first four teams out of the NCAA tournament in his bracket that was updated immediately after the Vols fell to the Tide.
“We want to be in the NCAA tournament, but I don’t think we can really worry about it,” said senior Skylar McBee. “It’s not something we can really control. We’re just going to see where the cards fall and hopefully we’re on the right side.
“I thought we put ourselves in position to be an NCAA tournament team. We had 20 wins and I think our strength of schedule is No. 37 or No. 38 in the country and no really bad losses. But that’s up to the committee now.”
Tennessee had the look of a hungry team early – beginning the game shooting a blistering 86 percent from the field in the opening moments, but quickly cooled off. The Vols hit just two field goal in the final seven minutes of the first half, allowing Alabama to take a 31-27 edge into the half after guard Trevor Releford hit a 3 as time expired in the first.
“I think in the first few minutes we were getting in our transition and being able to play our game,” point guard Trae Golden said. “But once they started hitting shots and pressing us and slowing us down – getting in their zone – it made things tougher for us.”
The Vols managed to tie it multiple times in the second half, but could never get back over the hump. Two Jarnell Stokes free throws cut it to 50-46 late, bringing life to an orange-filled crowd of just under 16,000 in Bridgestone Arena, but the Vols never got any closer.
Tennessee shot just 22 percent from 3-point range and 32 percent overall in the game. A squad that has prided itself in pounding the ball inside forward Jarnell Stokes during their stretch of nine wins in 10 games prior to Friday, suddenly started forcing tough 3s when they weren’t able to find a way inside against the Alabama defense.
The Vols finished the season 0-4 in games where they attempted 23 or more 3-pointers.
“I thought at least 15 or 20 were decent shots,” said coach Cuonzo Martin. “I thought even though Josh [Richardson] isn’t a traditional 3-point shooter, those guys spent a lot of time working on it. Josh is a solid 3-point shooter as well as Armani [Moore] with certain areas on the floor.”
It was also a tough night for Tennessee guard Jordan McRae – the SEC’s third-leading scorer coming into the game. The UT junior scored nine points on 3-of-13 shooting and fouled out with just under a minute to play.
Alabama advances to play top-seeded Florida in the SEC tournament semifinals on Saturday in Nashville.
The waiting game officially began for the Vols as soon as the buzzer sounded on Friday afternoon. They’ll gather privately in Knoxville to watch the selection show and wait together.
“Our resume stacks up against the best when you’re talking about a bubble team,” Martin said.
They’ll find out if that’s true on Sunday.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga