The month of February continues to be a charm for Tennessee basketball.
The Vols pulled away for a convincing 76-59 win at Alabama on Saturday, the first day of the month, bringing coach Cuonzo Martin’s February record at Tennessee to 14-3.
But more importantly for the Vols, they moved to 14-7 (5-3 SEC) on the season and took another step forward in their quest to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.
The win over a slumping Alabama (9-12, 3-5 SEC) squad playing on short rest might not vault UT up the rankings, but it was certainly an encouraging victory for a team that hadn’t won in Tuscaloosa since 2010. Tennessee also handed Alabama its worst SEC home loss since 2003.
The Vols’ seven-point halftime lead was cut down to four early in the second half. That’s when they began one of their best stretches of the season – mixing in some 1-3-1 zone on defense and getting clutch shots from Jordan McRae (26 points) and Josh Richardson (12 points) in addition to the steady work of forward Jarnell Stokes, who finished the game with his 30th career double-double (22 points, 16 rebounds).
"We went to our 1-3-1 defense and probably did it at the right time," said Martin. "They did a great job early in the second half, doing what they had done by getting to the basket and making plays. We pulled it out at the right time. It was a good thing I didn’t pull it out in the first half."
“In the 1-3-1 we have a lot of length and we shut down easy passes and didn’t let them get in the lane easily," said guard Josh Richardson. "It was nice to be able to switch it up a little bit. I think that we were so good at it tonight because we have been practicing it a lot the past couple of weeks. I think this is the first time we have started it in a game.
With Alabama's offense sputtering, UT's offense found another gear.
Richardson and McRae combined to hit 8 of 20 3-point attempts to help UT pull away from the Tide. In total, the Vols outscored Alabama 36-23 over the last 16 minutes. Alabama never truly threated again after a monstrous dunk by Stokes put UT up 53-41 with just over 10 minutes remaining.
“We got outplayed," said Alabama coach Anthony Grant. "Tennessee obviously had a lot of success. All you have to do is look at the numbers. In the second half they were 71 percent from the field and 3 of 5 from the 3-point line."
Tennessee plays at Vanderbilt Wednesday night (8:00 p.m. ET) before returning home for a two-game home stand against South Carolina and Florida.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga