This could be a decent basketball team if they could ever learn that a game consists of two halves. After being notorious for poor first half performances; we waited till the second half to stink it up.
The game started slowly with UT holding a 5-3 lead at the first media timeout. Then Alabama went on a run to take a comfortable lead. Key was attacking the basket. Riley made several open 3s. The zone defense was very effective. We took a 36-22 lead into the locker room and the crowd was completely out of the game.
Even with the big halftime lead; I was still concerned for 3 reasons: 1) We were 7 of 8 from 3 point range in the first half. That's not sustainable even for a good 3 point shooting team, much less this bunch. 2) Likewise UT was 1 of 8 from downtown against our zone. Common sense says they would at least improve some in the second half on their home court. 3) Assuming a regression to the mean in both of those areas, UT was actually out-rebounding us. Part of that was due to the zone defense, but rebounding has been our strength and I felt that limiting them to one shot would be a key to holding on for the win.
Jimmie Taylor made a nice hook shot from the post early in the second half to push the lead to 16, and then it all went to crap. I will go ahead and say it, Rick Barnes out-coached Avery Johnson. They made adjustments at halftime that we looked totally unprepared for. They played a more aggressive man defense with some pressing and trapping mixed in. They overplayed the passing lanes denying the first pass to the wings. Offensively, they started attacking the basket and consistently beat us off the dribble. As a result, if we got a shot off on offense it was usually a contested, low percentage jump shot, while they quickly got into the bonus thanks to our foul trouble. Tennessee regained the lead with 8 minutes to go.
Give our guys some credit for keeping their composure on the road at that point. They switched back to a man defensively and got some big stops to slow UT's momentum. Although we were able to stay in the game, we were not able to make the plays down the stretch to finish the game. The most important play of the game came with about 2 minutes left. We had managed to build a 5 point lead and got a turnover resulting in a 2 on 1 fast break opportunity, but Dazon tried to pass the ball to Riley instead of taking his open lane to the basket, turning it back over to the Vols who promptly drained a 3 at the other end, breathing new life into the building. That was a 5 point swing, and a 7 point lead with under 2 minutes to play, and being able to set our defense, would have been a nice position to be in. We really need to work on our transition offense, Avery JR did the exact same thing on a similar opportunity earlier in the game in the first half.
I don't like to complain about the officiating, but I thought it was really inconsistent in this game. Two calls in particular, both involving Donta Hall stood out to me. I thought both should have been called intentional fouls on dunk attempts, but one was just called a common foul and the other didn't even draw a whistle. We benefited from a few calls as well, but those two missed calls were inexplicable to me.
There was a decent crowd, I would guess around 9,000 or so, though it felt like much less than that due to Thompson Boling arena being so cavernous. It's a really nice facility, but 21,000+ is way bigger than they need. There were a few more Bama fans there than I expected, although we were very spread out. There was at least some crimson in every section; I'm guessing about 700 or so scattered about. The Vol fans didn't get really loud until the very end. We didn't have any issues with their fans, other than a few dirty looks and some unruly children sitting behind us, they mostly just left us alone.
Up next, the SEC tournament. It's a new season, and the great thing about college basketball is even teams like LSU and Mizzou can still theoretically win it all. We will play at approximately 2:45 pm Thursday against the winner of Mississippi State and LSU. I've posted the full bracket below. I think we need to win Thursday to be assured of an NIT bid. Unfortunately, Kentucky is likely lurking Saturday unless they choke against Georgia or Tennessee. Regardless, it's difficult for me to see a way this team makes a run into the weekend.