A trying week of suspensions, injuries and consecutive losses included another plot twist for the Alabama basketball program Saturday afternoon. The physically overwhelming 62-50 win ended Tennessee’s four-game winning streak while energizing the shorthanded Crimson Tide.
Playing without three starters, Alabama (17-9, 6-6 SEC) demoralized the Vols with an aggressive backcourt and a retooled frontline. The Tide had a season-high 15 steals among the 17 Tennessee turnovers with Andrew Steele and Trevor Lacey combining for 11.
“We had a lot of fun out there and it was contagious when you see people playing so hard out there,” said a smiling Steele, who added a career-best seven assists and 10 points. “It kinda rubs off on everybody else.”
Lacey also came a point shy of a career high with 18 on 9 of 12 free-throw shooting. He got there by penetrating instead of settling for jumpers like he’d recently done.
Still, it was his 3-pointer nine minutes into the game that erased Tennessee’s final lead in what became a rout. Tide runs of 10-0 and 6-0 put the hosts up 10 after trailing by as many as five.
Tennessee (14-13, 6-6) tied the game early in the second half before Alabama’s 19-2 outburst pumped life into the crowd of 12,988. The lead never dipped below eight after that. Alabama’s rabid intensity didn’t surprise Vol Jeronne Maymon,
“No, ’cause coach (Cuonzo Martin) said that the hungriest team hunts best, so it was all about who was hungry,” said Maymon, who led all scorers with 20 points.
Martin said the Vols were too passive instead of attacking the Alabama pressure. The full-court press continued even after taking a 15-point lead. Eager pursuit of passing lanes and pressured ball handlers created the 17 turnovers that became 19 points on the other end.
Alabama did it with the SEC steals leader coming off the bench. Trevor Releford missed part of two late-week practices after a blow to the head required concussion testing. He passed midway through Friday’s workout, but missed his first start of a game in which he played.
The sophomore contributed pressure while only recording two steals. Releford scored nine of the 19 in the second-half run including seven straight.
A midweek injury to recent-starter Nick Jacobs kept him on the bench all afternoon. Grant said the infection in his mouth that required root canal left the freshman with a fever Saturday.
Also missing were Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green. Their indefinite suspensions hit four games for Mitchell and three for Green. Still, the Tide received considerable production from the two 7-footers with suddenly heavy workloads.
Both Carl Engstrom and Moussa Gueye saw career-high minutes while impacting both ends. Engstrom’s seven points and seven rebounds broke and matched collegiate highs. His high screens also freed guards to penetrate the lane.
Gueye’s six blocks was a season high for any Alabama player.
“He had a huge impact on the game,” said Grant, who wore a blue bow tie to promote colon cancer awareness. “He took one shot and grabbed two rebounds, but he was so active. His presence down there … he blocked six of them, but he affected so many more.
The Vols’ 34.1 percent shooting performance was its second worst of the season and included 4-for-20 3-point shooting.
Steele stopped short of calling Saturday’s shorthanded win a bold statement for a program that’s created its share of adversity lately. Lacey said there’s singular purpose remains no matter who plays.
“We don’t just settle for the big three or big couple guys,” Lacey said. “We just all came together and did the little things that we could do to equal them out there. Every rebounded to make up for (Green’s) Tony’s rebounds and everybody hustled for Tony’s hustle (plays).”
Four regular-season games remain for Alabama starting at 6 p.m., Thursday at Arkansas. Mississippi State and Auburn travel to Tuscaloosa before ending the year March 3 at Ole Miss.
On the net
For video from Saturday’s game, go to The Daily Bama Blog at dailybamablog.com