By Steve Williams
Don’t sell short Tennessee’s 69-68 win over Alabama last week. Beating the Crimson Tide in basketball hasn’t come easily for the Vols over the years, not even for some of their best teams.
And battling back from 15 points behind in Tuscaloosa as Coach Rick Barnes’ team did last week could be the launching pad for a good finish to the 2019-20 campaign.
How this UT team fared against Kentucky in this past Saturday’s follow-up game also should go a long way in telling us if it is a real contender or not for a NCAA tournament berth.
Tennessee had played a close game in a loss at No. 3 ranked Kansas, but many fans sounded like they had given up on the Vols after an awful home loss to Texas A&M, and who could blame them? Getting beat on the boards as bad as they did was inexcusable.
But UT showed a lot of fight at Alabama, the top offensive team in the SEC.
“Defensively,” said Barnes, “it may have been our best game all year being for locked in from start to finish against a very explosive offensive team.”
Barnes boiled it down to one key word. “I thought our guys battled the entire game.”
Prior to the victory, Tennessee had a 12-18 overall record against Alabama since the beginning of the Kevin O’Neil days, which go back to the 1994-95 season, 25 years ago.
Over that period of time, the Vols were 4-9 against Alabama at Coleman Coliseum, 7-6 at Thompson-Boling Arena and 1-3 in SEC tourney play on neutral courts.
UT once lost seven in a row to the Crimson Tide (from 2002 through 2006, and you probably thought that only happened in football).
Even Bruce Pearl went 3-3 against Alabama during his run at Tennessee, losing twice in TBA.
Barnes’ 2018 SEC co-champs were blown out 78-50 in Tuscaloosa.
Grant Williams and Company, unbeaten in the SEC and 15-1 overall at the time of its meeting with Alabama last season in Knoxville, managed to win by three points.
This year’s UT team, which lost four starters to the NBA ranks and LaMonte Turner to a season-ending shoulder injury, has been up and down since a 6-0 start.
Defense has been the strength of the squad, as Tennessee has allowed an average of only 61.5 points per game, while averaging 66.6.
Senior and Carter High product Jordan Bowden, junior John Fulkerson and junior Yves Pons are now leading the Vols, along with freshman point guard Santiago Vescovi, who joined the team in late December and started playing right away.
Redshirt-freshman Uros Plavsic (7-0, 240), another late addition to the roster, made his first start against Alabama.
Guards Josiah-James Jordan and Devonte Gaines and forward Drew Pember from Bearden High also are promising freshmen, and Coach Barnes is expected to have another strong freshmen class coming in next season as well.
For now, though, the Vols (5-4 SEC and 13-9) are trying to rack up enough victories in the second half of the conference schedule to join the madness this March.
Beating Bama like they did was a good way to end the first half.