TUSCALOOSA _ The crowd at Coleman Coliseum was uninspired, the offense had really struggled in the first half and the University of Alabama men’s basketball team had reached the point when it usually sputtered down the stretch.
Senior guard Andrew Steele keyed Alabama's late rally as it went on to win 68-65.
Yet it wasn’t the same old story for a team that had lost six of its previous eight games, as guard Andrew Steele showed just what kind of difference a veteran can make when a game is on the line. With roughly 5 minutes remaining Saturday, Alabama’s only senior sparked a quick 11-0 run and the Crimson Tide held on for a much-needed 68-65 victory over Tennessee.
“As a team, we took a stand,” Coach Anthony Grant said. “That’s what we’ve been looking for, for someone to say ‘This is what we’re going to do and we’re going to do it this way.’
“I was proud of him for doing that. As I told him in the locker room, when he leads like that this team will follow.”
Sophomore guard Trevor Lacey had his best game in nearly a month and junior guard Trevor Releford matched his 15 points after being shut out in the first half, while sophomore guard Levi Randolph chipped in 12 to go with six rebounds.
Playing in his first home game since having sports-hernia surgery, Steele came off the bench to play 18 minutes and had 11 points and four of Alabama’s 10 steals. During the pivotal stretch he was credited with six points and two steals during a span of 46 seconds.
“It wasn’t just me,” Steele said.
That’s true. To paraphrase Grant, while Steele was the difference, Releford set the tone in the second after Alabama shot just 26.7 percent (8 of 30) and scored 24 points in the first half.
Tennessee (8-6, 0-2 SEC) didn’t fare much better, though, shooting 38.5 percent and having 28 points.
Junior guard Trevor Releford scored all 15 points in the second half Saturday.
“In the first half we missed 10 layups, we weren’t finishing plays, we had breakdowns,” Grant said. “Defensively obviously Tennessee is a big physical team, they were dominating us on the glass. There was just mistakes that we can’t afford to make that we were making – you foul a guy at the end of the half, you give them three free throws.
“Over the last several weeks, I’ve felt like we’ve practiced and felt like we’ve gotten better because of the effort and the focus we’ve had in practice. It’s not translating over to games. There is a level of frustration for your players and for me because I want to see it happen.
“My message to them was, “Ok, at some point you gotta stop taking punches and you have to throw some.”
It started with Releford, who in the first three minutes after the break minutes repeatedly drove the lane and scored eight points as Alabama (9-6, 1-1 SEC) retook the lead.
“He’s probably one the best in the country in my opinion, in transition he’s either scoring or getting fouled,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “It’s a tremendous style, this guy scores in transition. He’s very crafty with the basketball.”
From there the game went back and forth with Tennessee having major advantages in the paint (30-18) and rebounding (40-25) as junior guard Jordan McRae led all scorers with 21 points, but standout forward Jarnell Stokes was limited to just six.
Alabama, meanwhile, forced 16 turnovers and had a 10-2 edge in steals as the transition game came alive. It also made its free throws, finishing 16 of 19, while Tennessee was 8 of 16.
“We had a better sense of urgency in the second half,” Steele said. “Me as a leader, and Trevor, us being veteran guys, we kind of put on ourselves to lead our guys through these kinds of situations. We’ve seen this before, and a lot of our guys may not have.”
“I think the young guys stepped up and became men in the second half, and down the stretch,” Releford said. “That’s what we’re going to need from everybody.”
Following Steele’s run – which ended with Grant jumping off the bench screaming in celebration after Martin called time out-- Alabama held its biggest lead 62-55. Junior guard Trae Golden, who didn’t start, scored and pulled off a three-point play to bring the Vols back close, only Lacey made a key pull-up jump shot to keep Alabama ahead.
That helped set up the final play, when off two Releford free throws with 7. 5 seconds to go Grant didn’t call a time out to keep Tennessee from drawing up a play, and wanted his players to foul during the final five seconds. They didn’t, but affected Golden enough that his game-tying 3-point attempt clanged off the rim as time expired.
“I think in the second half the intensity we came out with and the passion that we showed is how we need to play the rest of the way,” Grant said. “That’s the identity we need to have. That’s the way we need to approach the rest of the season and that was my message to the team after the game. I was frustrated and disappointed about the way we closed the half with the mental mistakes and the inability to finish and the breakdowns that we had, but we played the second half with a passion.”