NASHVILLE — The first year of the newly-expanded Southeastern Conference’s 18-game basketball schedule broke in Alabama’s favor.
That’s because the Crimson Tide got to play Tennessee twice. Each team won a game, and both could have gone either way near the end. And both gave the Tide a clear message about how to play the Vols when they met for a third time in the SEC tournament on Friday.
“We were expecting them to play both bigs [Jarnell Stokes and Kenny Hall] and that would give them one less ball handler in the game,” Alabama guard Trevor Lacey said. “We tried to pressure their guards. We weren’t looking to turn them over as much, but we were looking at the last four minutes of the game. Tire them out and try to finish strong.”
The press worked to perfection. Tennessee turned the ball over just 10 times, but as Lacey said, that wasn’t the point. In those crucial final four minutes, Alabama had the energy to close out a 58-48 win, and the Vols didn’t have much left to close the gap. Several point-blank shots were missed down the stretch.
“They did a good job in the press,” Tennessee guard Skylar McBee said. “Knowing we played a game last night. it’s a quick turn around. The pressure they put on you gets you up tempo and gets you maybe fatigued a little bit.”
There was a second component to Alabama’s defensive game plan. Normally a man-to-man team, the Tide utilized a 2-3 zone for much of the game against Tennessee.
“Nine times out of 10, we’re in man,” Lacey said. “[But] the last game we played them, they had 15 offensive rebounds and [Jarnell] Stokes buried us in the paint a couple times off angles with the action they run. They have good action for him and get him where he likes the ball. Basically the whole game we had two bodies on him and had a guard ready to double when he got the ball.”
Stokes still managed to rack up his 15th double-double of the season (12 points, 13 rebounds), but the zone provided a much more significant benefit than slowing down the big man. It also helped limit the contributions of guards Jordan McRae and Trae Golden. The pair combined for 4 of 20 shooting, 3 of 12 from 3-point range. McRae, one of the hottest players in the country the last month, managed just nine points, and Golden was held to two.
“They were sagging off, making it hard to get (Stokes) the ball,” Golden said. “When your shot’s not falling, it compounds the problem. This was one of those games where everything looks bad because shots aren’t falling.”
The Vols shot just 31 percent from the field and 21 percent from 3. Alabama wasn’t guarding free throws but may as well have; Tennessee managed to make just half of its 14 free throws.
“We weren’t necessarily taking the best shots,” Golden said of Tennessee 3-point shooting (5 of 23). “And that cost us.”