Tennessee Volunteers Survive Physical Game Against Rival Alabama

The Tennessee Volunteers now have sole possession of first place in the SEC after their road victory against Alabama.
Tennessee v Alabama
Tennessee v Alabama / Brandon Sumrall/GettyImages

The Tennessee Volunteers came into Saturday's matchup against Alabama, tied for the lead in the SEC. Tennessee is known for its elite defense, while Alabama came in showcasing its high-powered offense. We saw both on Saturday in Tennessee's win 81-74 over Alabama.

This game was a back-and-forth battle between two of the best the SEC has to offer. The Vols and Tide opened the floor offensively in the first half, and both defenses locked down their opponents offensively for much of the second half to make for a tale of two halves.

Tennessee's disruptive defense held the upper hand throughout most of the first half over Alabama's overpowering offense. Both teams had their runs on offense, forcing each other to make defensive adjustments on the fly. Tennessee did a good job forcing turnovers early and establishing physical play on both ends of the court when they had their full lineup on the court.

Tennessee faced foul trouble late in the first half and throughout the entire second half against Auburn, and this was the case again early against Alabama, with Jonas Aidoo quickly getting two fouls before the first TV timeout. While Aidoo sat early in the first half, Tobe Awaka filled in and quickly earned two fouls himself. Dalton Knecht and Josiah-Jordan James also earned two fouls each before the end of the first half.

Late in the first half, Rick Barnes removed his big men from the court and went with five guards on the court due to Tennessee's early foul trouble. This move did not benefit the Vols as they lost battles in the paint and were unable to establish physicality down low. Alabama took full advantage when the Vols had its small lineup on the court to end the first half.

It showed how important it is for Tennessee to establish its presence down low. Tennessee was forced to keep the ball on the perimeter when they couldn't play in the paint. That hurt Tennessee offensively as they struggled to score and allowed Alabama to go on two big offensive runs, leading to Alabama taking the lead going into halftime.

Tennessee played from behind throughout the second half, and it showed how they played on the offensive end of the court. The Vols relied on their three-point shooting, which did not help them retake the lead, missing five straight three-point shots down the stretch. This allowed Alabama to extend their lead to seven.

The Vols continued to keep it close but the tables had turned. Tennessee's defense was slipping, while Alabama's defense seemed to be finding its stride. The Tide suffocated Tennessee's offense and the Vols struggled to overcome their tough defense. Tennessee's defense held, though, as they struggled throughout the second half to keep the game close and slowly retake the lead in the final minutes of the game.

Knecht also had a quiet night against a big-time conference rival. Knecht only had 14 against Auburn before he decided he wasn't going to miss a shot for the rest of the game. He hovered around low teens late in this game and finished with 13 points against the Tide. This was primarily a result of Knecht struggling from beyond the three-point line, shooting 1-for-7 from deep.

Both teams struggled to shoot threes. Tennessee shot 12 for 40 (30%), and Alabama shot 9 for 37 (24.3%). Tennessee held the upper hand shooting from deep late in the game, making a few more three-point shots than Alabama, and that was ultimately the difference.

With Knecht struggling from the field against Alabama, the Vols needed someone else to step up and help lead the Vols to victory. It took an entire team effort to get the job done, with five players in foul trouble at the end of the game. Zakai Zeigler finished with 18 points and four assists, James had 11 points and 13 rebounds, and Jahmai Mashack finished with eight points, four assists, six rebounds, and numerous clutch plays that will not show up in the stat sheet.

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On a night where it seemed like Tennessee struggled up and down the court between three-point shooting and foul trouble, Barnes' Vols did just enough to beat Alabama on the road to secure first place in the SEC.