Oh my, it was a mismatch, near-total dominance, a 20-point rout.
What was supposed to be a huge Southeastern Conference showdown, a crucial test for the Volunteers, turned into Tennessee 91, Alabama 71. The game wasn’t as close as the score.
The Crimson Tide came into Food City Center 4-0 in the league with the top-octane offense in the country. The Vols smothered the attack, essentially shut it down and led from start to finish.
Alabama, famous for three-point marksmanship, hit four of 21. Twenty-two turnovers were a disaster. The Vols converted 11 offensive rebounds into 17 second-chance points. They got 28 from reserves and powered in 38 from the paint.
It was an overall “wow” with an exclamation point. The big crowd, attired mostly in orange, loved it.
“That was as dominating a performance as anybody has put on us in a long time,” said Alabama coach Nate Oaks. “They’re good. They’re tough. They’re physical. We weren’t ready for it.”
The Tide caught one break. Dalton Knecht showed up without his Superman cape, missed five long shots and sagged to a mere 25 points. He had been flirting with 40 in recent games.
There wasn’t much wrong with Jonas Aidoo. He scored 19, grabbed five rebounds, blocked four shots and influenced several others. Two fouls in the first half limited his playing time.
Jordan Gainey, scoreless in the past three games, erupted for 15. Santiago Vescovi scored 10 and played defense as if it really mattered. Jahmai Mashack had eight points, four rebounds, four assists and helped disturb Tide star guard Mark Sears. Zakai Zeigler set the defensive tone.
Sears scored 22, more than his league-leading average, but was really upset and talking to himself. He was ineffective trying to direct the Alabama offense. Everywhere he looked, Vols were in the way. He lost the ball seven times.
Rick Barnes faced a serious postgame dilemma. He was asked if he was happier with the 91-point offense or the defensive handcuffs.
“Defense” said the coach.
He insisted that Alabama is difficult to guard, that it can score so many different ways with different people. To stop such a versatile attack “takes a team effort.”
Barnes said “Jonas (Aidoo) certainly had some terrific plays. And Jahmai (Mashack). And again, they’re really, really difficult to guard. Their schemes are great. They spread (you out). They’re really a difficult team to guard from the time they get their hands on the ball.
“I’m proud of the effort the guys put into it, mentally and physically.”
Barnes said everything the Vols do on defense is team-oriented “but we got a group that really does take pride in trying to guard the ball – one-on-one guard their man. It’s a blessing because you very seldom have guys that really want to play that hard defensively.”
After a minute to think about it, the coach seemed happy about the offense, too.
“Happy with the fact that we shared the ball well. I think we had 21 assists on 32 baskets.”
After a few extra minutes to think about Knecht’s discouraging scoring slump, he had 17 in the first half to help build a 50-37 lead. Gainey probably wasn’t even in Alabama’s scouting report. The son of the UT associate head coach hadn’t done anything lately. This time, he did a lot. He hit three 3-pointers and had 13 points before halftime.
“Jordan Gainey was a huge factor in the game, a huge factor,” said Barnes. “We knew it was just a matter of time.”
Tennessee removed most of the drama early. Vescovi, Ziggy and Knecht hit threes and it was 21-12 after about eight minutes. Gainey’s first three made it 30-16. He had missed eight of his previous nine long shots.
The lead was 17 three minutes before intermission.
Coach Oats, not unlike Barnes, thought Tennessee’s defense was the decisive storyline. He said it is impossible to prepare for the pressure the Vols apply “because you don’t have anybody on your team that plays as hard or as quick as Zeigler. All of a sudden, he’s up into you and you’re not used to it. We tried to tell the guys what it was going to be like, tried to replicate it. Sometimes you got to experience it.”
Oats conceded that the Vols gave his point guard a really difficult time. Sears struggled.
“They got up into him. They pressured him. They took us out. They blew up screens. Their physicality bothers. They’re denying passing lanes.”
For some strange reason, Tennessee has a week off. It plays next at Vanderbilt on Saturday. Barnes sees a silver lining.
“It seems late but we got to get guys healthy. Some of these guys need some rest just from simple fatigue. That part is good. And it’s a big week for our young guys. We have to get our young guys better because I think all those guys are going to have to help us at some point.”
OK, so it is time out. What we have here is a brief rest stop for “the old guys” and a coaching clinic for those still in kindergarten.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is email@example.com