No Josiah James for the second game in a row, Bama on fire from three, foul trouble taking Uros Plavisc out of the equation…you’d be forgiven for shutting this thing down as it neared halftime. Alabama took a 39-24 lead with 1:49 to play in the first half after Plavsic picked up his third foul on a dead ball technical, sending some frustration Alabama’s way via a shot to the ribcage.
It wasn’t the sort of moment that felt like a turning point for Tennessee, because things genuinely felt too far gone. The Vols were staring at 12-10 (4-5) with an uphill climb in front of them on the schedule, ineffective in so many ways since almost winning at Kansas.
But the Vols did the same thing in that last 1:49 that got them all the way back in the next 20 minutes. Jordan Bowden hit two free throws. John Fulkerson hit two more. The Vols forced a turnover. And Fulkerson hit a big shot.
Alabama’s lead was down to eight at halftime. The Vols cut it to four in the first minute of the second half, then Kira Lewis hit a three, and then we stayed there for a while at 43-36. Another three put the Tide back up 10 with 15 minutes to play.
The Vols scored 36 points in those first 25 minutes, then scored 33 in the last 15.
Jordan Bowden was again a huge difference maker in the second half. He scored five straight points to get the Vols back within five, then knocked in another one to bring it down to two with 10 minutes to play. Fulkerson hit two free throws to tie it, Kira Lewis splashed a three, then Fulkerson hit two more free throws. A minute later, the Vols got the lead on two Bowden free throws. Rinse, repeat.
Bama would push back in front, but the Vols would push back. Tied at 61-61 with under four to go, we got this beauty:
(Uros Plavsic is the MVP of bench celebrations on this night.)
Alabama fans will be quick to point out the foul differential – 14 against the Vols, 26 on the Tide which eventually disqualified their three best post players – but we’ll be quick to point out how bad the Vols had been at getting to the line in league play, and what a huge difference it can make.
Tennessee never trailed after Fulkerson’s slam, but Bama had a shot down two in the final seconds. Yves Pons said no:
…and then made two free throws to put the Vols up four, making Bama’s buzzer three meaningless.
What a huge win, in joyous and unexpected fashion.
The Vols were 2-of-18 from three and survived Bama hitting 11 of them by way of 23-of-32 at the line. Alabama shot eight free throws. Offensive rebounds, the bane of Tennessee’s existence last week? Nine for the Tide, 19 (!!!) for the Vols. Kentucky will present a much bigger challenge, literally and figuratively, in this department, but kudos to the Vols for completely turning this aspect around.
And while the Vols still had 13 turnovers of their own, Alabama gave it away 20 times. All of Tennessee’s weaknesses saw vast improvement tonight, and it was enough for a big Quad I win on the road.
Fulkerson finishes with 22 points on 8-of-9 shooting, including 6-of-6 in the first half. He and Pons each had three blocks. Bowden struggled at 5-of-17 but still finished with 20 points because he got to the line 11 times. The Vols still got very little scoring from their bench – two from Drew Pember- but got great hustle minutes and two steals from Davonte Gaines. Santiago Vescovi was 2-of-15 (!) from the floor but earned the J.P. Prince Stat Sheet of the Night: 8 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and only 1 turnover.
It was easy to give up on this game and, in some ways, this team late in the first half. And yet, they found a way by minimizing their weaknesses and maximizing the free throw line. It’s fun to watch guys like Fulkerson get better and then know they’ll also be around next year to play with all the new toys. But tonight’s win also keeps the Vols in the hunt this season. And Big Blue Nation is up next.