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KNOXVILLE, TN- Tennessee was looking to forget its last two heartbreaking losses, with No.1 Alabama visiting Knoxville on Wednesday night. If you thought the Vols were going to fade into the abyss of college basketball, this Rick Barnes squad had other plans.
For the first time since defeating Gonzaga in 2018, Tennessee upset the No.1 team in the country, this time doing it against conference foe Alabama, winning 68-59.
Just a few months after knocking off No.3 Alabama inside Neyland Stadium, Tennessee did it again, this time on the hardwood inside Thompson-Boling Arena. After losing consecutive games on last-second shots last week, there were worries within the fan base and college basketball world if this team was falling apart.
Not tonight, with Tennessee proving why they are the top-ranked defensive team in the country. Alabama entered this game scoring 83 points per game, but were held to a season low 59 points in Knoxville.
“Just a great effort all the way around for 40 minutes. We beat a terrific basketball team,” Rick Barnes said postgame. “When you’ve been in it this long, you always have to believe that what goes around comes around. It was a great night for us. Just so proud of the effort our guys made, especially defensively. The crowd – most underrated crowd in college basketball. A great win.”
It was the Alabama offense that struggled at times in the first half, turning it over twelve times, but holding Tennessee to 29% shooting, keeping it tied 29-29 at halftime. When you look at the Vols rotation, the absence Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips has put this team in a tough spot, but the energy level did not take a hit.
Thanks to a sold-out crowd, a raucous environment led to the feeling of a heavyweight title fight between two top-10 teams. The random Alabama fans stood out like a sore thumb, due to Tennessee fans ‘checkering’ the stands, leading to a pretty cool visual.
Honestly, I can’t remember the last time a team lost two back-to-back games like that, but somehow Rick Barnes kept his team together. I also don’t know what kind of information Vegas insiders had on this game, but they certainly had this one spot-on, with the Vols a three-point favorite.
It’s not as if this squad is full of world-beaters, but when you play this type of defense, they can certainly turn the tide of the season. Leading 58-52 at the last media timeout of the game, Tennessee’s Jonas Aidoo scored his 12th point of the game, bringing the crowd to its feet. Aidoo finished with a double-double, with 11 rebounds to go with his 12 points.
As the final buzzer sounded, ‘Dixieland Delight’ played over the loudspeakers, the same song they played after knocking off Alabama just three months ago across the street inside Neyland Stadium.
But what you saw out of this group tonight is what should scare opposing teams as March approaches. A strong defensive team, there have been times where this Vols team has looked sloppy on offense, struggling to find the basket. But against Alabama, they showed us another way by forcing turnovers and taking advantage of second-chance points.
“Well, it’s February. We’re going to Kentucky and on down the line,” Barnes noted about the win. “It doesn’t get any easier. We’ve just got to get better.”
Is this the type of effort we’ll see over the next month, as SEC play comes to an end? That’s to be seen, but the next chance to prove some folks wrong will come on Saturday, as Tennessee looks for revenge against Kentucky.
The Wildcats ruined ‘Chris Lofton Day’ last month, so now Tennessee will look to spoil ‘Tubby Smith Day’ in Lexington on Saturday.
Gotta love SEC hoops, as we head down the final stretch of the season.