Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin said at his introductory news conference three years ago that “If you see us playing zone, you’ll know we’re in trouble.”
Clearly, he has softened his stance since then. The Vols played a feisty 1-3-1 zone virtually the entire second half that helped them pull away for an impressive 76-59 defeat of Alabama Saturday night in Tuscaloosa.
“I never thought Coach Martin would turn to a zone,” Vol junior Jarnell Stokes said on the post-game show, “but I’m glad it worked. It just gives us another option when our man defense isn’t working as well.”
Martin admitted that he toyed with the idea of springing the 1-3-1 zone earlier this season.
“We call it thirteen, and we’ve been working on it two and one-half or three weeks,” the Vol coach said. “We just hadn’t put it in yet. The first time we thought about using it was at Florida; we just didn’t do it.”
As well as the zone defense worked in the second half of Saturday’s game, Tennessee’s offense may have performed even better during those final 20 minutes. After shooting a frigid 29.6 percent (8 of 27) from the field before intermission, the Vols made a sizzling 71.4 percent (15 of 21) thereafter. Moreover, Tennessee committed just five turnovers against Bama’s full-court pressure, thanks to quality play from point guards Darius Thompson and Antonio Barton.
“Both of ‘em did a great job,” Martin said. “We spent more (practice) time than normal on handling the press. Both of those guys did a great job of taking it hard (up the court), backing it up, crossing over and making plays.”
Jordan McRae hit 8 of 14 field-goal tries and 5 of 10 from 3-point range en route to a game-high 26 points. Stokes was dominant inside, contributing 22 points and 16 rebounds.
“The thing about Jarnell – and I’ve said it time and time again – is that when he’s assertive we’re a different ball club,” Martin said.
Josh Richardson drained three clutch 3-pointers and chipped in 12 points for the Vols, now 14-7 overall and 5-3 in SEC play.
Trevor Releford scored 23 points and Nick Jacobs 13 for Bama, which slips to 9-12 and 3-5.
Alabama basically tried the same blueprint that Florida used to annihilate the Vols 67-41 one week ago in their previous SEC road game. This time Tennessee was ready.
“I think the Florida game was a growing point for our team,” Stokes said. “We struggled with the press against them, we struggled hitting shots and we struggled with ball-screen defense. That’s almost exactly what Alabama’s game plan was. Today means a lot to me because we were able to step up and do the things we’ve been struggling in.”
Thompson started for the second game in a row and, for the second game in a row, the freshman helped Tennessee get off to a fast start. He and Richardson hit 3s, then Stokes added a foul shot and a put-back as the Vols raced to a 9-0 lead.
Johnson City native Shannon Hale scored five points in an 8-0 Bama spurt that narrowed the gap to 9-8 but three 3-pointers by McRae fueled a 13-4 explosion that pushed the lead to 22-12.
“I thought our guards did a good job early – knocking down 3-point shots, being aggressive in shooting those shots,” Martin said. “We felt like those opportunities would present themselves the way Jeronne (Stokes) and Jarnell rebound. Jarnell and Jeronne were patient early (despite getting few touches), then we started going inside to those guys and they started playing well.”
Down 30-23 at the break, the Tide showed some life at the start of the second half, whittling the gap to two points at 33-31, 35-33 and 38-36. Tennessee went to the 1-3-1 at this point, however, and Bama had no answer for it. The Vols made a quick 9-0 run to go up 47-36 with 14:10 remaining.
“I just felt like the second half of this game it was time,” Martin said. “They (Tide players) put their heads down and started making plays, getting to the basket and cutting into the lead. We weren’t very aggressive defensively, so I said, ‘Let’s change it up’ because I knew they weren’t expecting it.”
Apparently not. And, with Bama’s offense stalling, Tennessee broke the game wide open. An Antonio Barton drive pushed the lead to 58-43 with 7:51 left and a three-point play by Stokes produced Tennessee’s biggest lead, 75-52, with 1:53 remaining.
The Vols will be playing another road game Wednesday, visiting Vanderbilt.