The Tennessee Vols learned that lesson the hard way Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena. Alabama went 0 for overtime from the field but 10 for 10 from the foul line en route to a bizarre 65-60 defeat of the Big Orange before a season-best crowd of 21,948.
"It's real frustrating," said freshman Tobias Harris, who led the Vols with 19 points and 11 rebounds. "You'd think we won the game if you heard that stat. It just shows we didn't convert on the offensive end."
Associate head coach Tony Jones, filling in as the bench coach for suspended head man Bruce Pearl for the eighth and final time, appeared to be fighting back tears as he opened his post-game news conference. Jones finished 5-3 as the acting head man, with two of the losses coming in overtime on the Vols' home floor. He also lost to Florida (81-75) in OT. Clearly, this one was even harder to accept.
After saluting a "great crowd" that "wouldn't let the guys let up," Jones noted that he was "very disappointed" in the outcome. He conceded that playing at Auburn Thursday night at 9, returning to Knoxville in the wee hours of Friday morning and facing Alabama on Saturday afternoon was a challenge but declined to blame the loss on the quick turnaround.
Jones also refused to blame the loss on the absence of leading scorer Scotty Hopson, who missed the game with a sprained ankle, even though his replacement in the starting lineup, Josh Bone, went 0 for 2 from the field and was scoreless.
"Heck, we had an opportunity to win the game in regulation, and Scotty Hopson didn't play," Jones noted. "Not having Scotty meant nothing in the outcome of this basketball game."
Ultimately, Tennessee lost because it couldn't make stops in the first half and couldn't make plays in overtime. The flat-footed Vols allowed Alabama to shoot a sizzling 66.7 percent (16 of 24) in the first half as the Tide raced to a 38-27 lead.
"They shot 66.7 percent in the first half, and that just can't happen," Jones said. "Our guys didn't come out with the energy defensively. They (Tide) got some run-outs in the first half when our guys uncharacteristically didn't get back."
Tennessee ratcheted up its energy level at the start of the second half, outscoring the Tide 18-6 to pull ahead 45-44. Alabama rallied to grab a 55-49 lead with 4:29 left but the Tide would not make another point in regulation or another basket the rest of the day.
Trae Golden hit one of two free throws, narrowing the gap to 55-50 with 3:28 left, then Cameron Tatum hit a layup that pulled Tennessee within 55-52 with 2:07 to go. Harris made one of two free throws with 1:27 remaining, then sank a 5-footer in the lane to tie the score at 55 with 44 seconds left.
Tennessee appeared ready to finish off a fantastic rally when Brian Williams made a steal and Jones called timeout with 13 seconds left to set up the final shot. Harris was the first option but he was too far from the basket and fired the ball to the second option, Skylar McBee. McBee wasn't expecting the pass and was in no position to shoot, so he passed to point guard Melvin Goins at the top of the key. Goins, who went 0 for 7 on the day, missed a 3-pointer and Williams missed a tip at the buzzer.
Overtime started well for the Vols as Williams scored on a running left-handed tip for a 57-55 lead. JaMychal Green hit four free throws and Tony Mitchell two, however, as Alabama surged ahead 61-57. Harris hit a free throw for Tennessee but Trevor Releford answered with two more foul shots for Bama as the lead swelled to 63-58. A Harris dunk trimmed the lead to 63-60 with 15.9 seconds left but Green drained two more free throws with 14 seconds remaining to seal the deal.
"We were in position there at the end to win the game but couldn't make a play," McBee said. "It was a tough loss."
Except for his overtime free throws, Green was shut down by Tennessee. He finished with 14 points - just 1.7 off his season average - but made only 3 of 12 field-goal tries, reeled in just 4 rebounds and committed 4 turnovers. While the Vols were corralling Green, however, Mitchell was going off. He hit 9 of 18 shots and scored 24 points to pace Bama, now 15-7 overall and 7-1 in SEC play.
Tatum supported Harris with 16 points for Tennessee, which slips to 15-8 overall and 5-3 in the league.The Vols won the backboard battle 48-33 but shot a mere 34.9 percent (20 of 56) from the field, 20 percent (4 of 20) from 3-point range and 60 percent (12 of 20) from the foul line.
Even with Pearl returning to his accustomed role as bench coach, the Vols face a very difficult week - road games at Kentucky on Tuesday and at Florida on Saturday.