Late rally fails to scale Rocky Top

Spencer White

Despite an inspired late rally and a double-double performance by JaMychal Green, the Alabama Crimson Tide couldn’t pull off a spectacular upset, falling to the No. 8 Tennessee Volunteers 63-56 in front of 12,098 fans at Coleman Coliseum Tuesday night.

“We put ourselves in a position where we had opportunities and weren’t able to capitalize on those opportunities,” Alabama head coach Anthony Grant said. “I think you’ve got to give Tennessee a lot of credit … some of their veterans really stepped up in the second half and made the plays.”

It was the third consecutive Southeastern Conference loss for Alabama (11-7, 1-3 SEC). In each contest, the Tide held a halftime lead only to watch it slip away in the final 20 minutes.

“What we have to do is continue to develop the players we have,” Grant said. “We have a team that is somewhat undersized and under-skilled, and the process for us is going to continue to be to develop the guys on our roster.”

Both the Tide and Vols played an aggressive, but errant, offensive game early. Alabama and Tennessee took a combined 28 shots in the first eight minutes of the contest while connecting on only seven of them as the Tide limped out to an early 11-9 lead.

On defense, the Tide started the contest with a two-guard look, leaving Senario Hillman on the bench in favor of freshman Tony Mitchell in an effort to counter the Volunteers’ tall interior players. Later in the first half, however, Hillman joined the floor, and the Tide reverted to its normal quick-paced perimeter defense.

Mitchell capitalized on the starting opportunity, dazzling his way to 11 points and five blocks, a career-high, in 32 minutes of action.

“I just try to sacrifice myself for the team,” Mitchell said.

The Tide would continue to alter the personnel groupings throughout the first half, effectively forcing Tennessee to change strategies on offense and limit a powerful Volunteer team to a meager 33.3 field goal percentage.

“Tennessee’s got a lot of guys that can score the basketball,” Grant said. “I thought defensively, with the effort we gave, it was enough to win the game against most teams.”

The Tide was unable to take a decisive advantage due to its own troubles shooting the ball, managing a mere 25 first-half points, led by Green’s nine points, en route to a one-point lead at intermission. Alabama connected on just 10-of-29 shots in the first half and hit only one of six three-point attempts.

“We’ve got to find a way to generate more offense,” Grant said. “It’s just a matter of us being able to stay the course, and hopefully, at some point, you start to make those shots. And once you do that, it starts to make it a little easier … to take advantage.”

After the break, the Volunteers opted to try a different strategy against the stifling Tide defense, ramming the ball inside and using their height advantage under the boards.

The change in plan worked in the opening salvo of the second half, with the Volunteers exploiting Alabama in the post en route to a 35-31 lead with 14:10 remaining in the contest.

In addition, the Tide struggled to find any offensive rhythm against a Tennessee defense that swarmed to the ball and was in Alabama’s face contesting every shot. The Tide’s leading scorer, Mikhail Torrance, was held without a field goal for nearly 33 minutes of the game and finished with a mere three points.

“They came in with a game plan … that forced [Torrance] to do other things,” Grant said. “He did a very good job of finding guys who were open, but we weren’t able to convert.”

In a 4:29 span that started at the 15:32 mark, the Tide was only able to score one field goal as it watched Tennessee storm out to a 44-33 lead.

“It was very frustrating, but at the same time we had to keep our head up,” Green said. “It was just our fault, we needed to make some stops on the defensive end.”

However, Alabama refused to go down without a fight, climbing back to pull the deficit to five with 4:46 remaining and Tennessee holding a 54-49 lead. Both teams swapped several blows before Green drove to the basket on a layup, made the shot and was fouled. Green sunk the shot from the charity stripe to pull the Tide within four with 3:30 remaining in regulation. Green finished the contest with 16 points and 12 rebounds, his third double-double of the season.

With 1:22 remaining in the contest, Torrance was fouled on a shot and made one of two free throws to put Alabama within three points of tying the contest.

It was the closest Alabama would come, as Tennessee’s Wayne Chism scored two of his 11 second-half points before a missed Tide shot led to a Hillman foul and two subsequent Bobby Maze free throws that iced a 60-53 lead for the Vols. Alabama fouled the rest of the way to the final margin.

Alabama will next take the court Saturday at 11 a.m. to face the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Coleman Coliseum.