Fight for first: Vols turn back Tide in ‘great game’

Marvin Westwestwords

Great game of the year, no question about it, Tennessee 81-74 over Alabama in Tuscaloosa was officially a great game.

Coach Rick Barnes said “great game” five times in the first six minutes of his postgame commentary.

In the fight for first place in Southeastern Conference standings, the Tennessee second-half defense was really great. High-scoring Alabama was limited to 33 points. It hit two of 17 three-point attempts. Jahmai Mashack and Josiah-Jordan James were terrific at their jobs. So said Barnes.

James might have been better than that. He was outstanding on defense, scored 11 and pulled down 13 rebounds.

Alabama played some defense, too. Dalton Knecht scored only 13. The Vols shot 36 percent but they gave just enough extra effort.

Mashack made the inspirational combo play of the game. He hit a three from the corner to put the Vols on top, 63-62, with 6:03 remaining and took the ball away from the Tide in the backcourt. Jonas Aidoo cashed in the steal. Alabama never recovered.

Tennessee overcame serious stumbling blocks from start to finish. Aidoo and Tobe Awaka were in early foul trouble. Knecht hit only one of seven long shots. Zakai Zeigler scored 18 but missed 10 three-point flings.

But the Vols played with the heart of champions. They outhustled the Tide time after time. They didn’t flinch when the home team went on one long scoring run before intermission and had the lead in the second half.

“My compliments to the players for how hard they worked,” said the coach. “They deserved the great win.”

Tennessee, 13-3 and one game ahead in the title race, faces another “game of the year” Wednesday evening at South Carolina. The surprising Gamecocks, winners in Knoxville in January, are 12-4.

The Vols and Tide traded scoring runs. From 13-12, Tennessee poured in 10 points and shut off some of the noise from the capacity crowd. Alabama concentrated its defensive effort on Knecht and closed to 30-29. Jordan Gainey sparked another streak and the Vols surged ahead by 10.

The Tide scored 12 in a row and led at halftime, 41-39.

Aidoo played only four and a half minutes of the first 20 because of two quick fouls. Tobe Awaka, Knecht and JJJ had two each. Barnes had no choice but to use some strange combinations.

Alabama was ahead 58-51 with 13:42 left in the game. Tennessee did not panic. Santiago Vescovi broke through for a layup. Ziggy hit a three. Mashack made a crisp pass and Aidoo slammed. Mashack followed with the plays that some considered pivotal.

It was too close for comfort at 70-69 but the Tide never regained the lead. Tennessee did not go on a scoring spree. It did clamp down on Tide shooters.

Consider memorizing these numbers: Alabama, the leading offensive team in the country, made three goals in the final 15 minutes and 27 seconds. One was uncontested because the Vols didn’t want to risk a foul and stop the clock.

The game of the year was not artistic but it was a Tennessee defensive clinic under considerable pressure in a hostile setting.

Guard Mark Sears led the losers with 22 (eight of nine free throws). Aaron Estrada had 16 and Nick Pringle 13. Alabama hit 38 percent.

It’s not like Tennessee ever started shooting the lights out, but they just made it nearly impossible for Alabama to score.

Barnes was proud.

“Both teams were playing hard. Both teams were battling. There were a lot of individual battles going on … our older guys have been through a lot and they talk about being in these type games.

“At no point in time do I see them flinch. They just kept saying, hey, we have to stay in it, keep grinding, keep grinding. And they did that. I got to give credit, all the credit, to the players. Really the older guys, because I thought they were really terrific.”

The coach was almost emotional about Mashack.

“He’s a team-first player … I love him to death. His toughness, his defense, when he does what he’s really good at … I could almost say I thought he played the best game he’s played since he’s been at Tennessee.”

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is

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