Tennessee (10-8, 2-4) exorcised some demons this afternoon, rallying for a 54-53 win over Alabama (12-7, 4-2) in a gut-check game. The Vols trailed for much of the afternoon, but rode a second half surge and a huge day from Jarnell Stokes to the win.
Stokes played arguably the best game of his young career, scoring 15 points and pulling down a career high 18 rebounds. He also had a very large hand in the game's deciding play, harassing Alabama's Trevor Lacey into an ineffective three-point attempt as the final buzzer sounded.
It was a play that sent the Alabama bench into a frenzy, looking for a foul and three potential game winning free throws from the crowd.
"Nah, I definitely didn't foul him," Stokes said emphatically after the game. "I kind of expected the whistle to blow though, just because it seems we have a lot of calls go against us. But my feet never moved, I never left the ground.
"I knew I didn't jump but a lot of those calls go in guards favor."
In avenging an earlier loss to Alabama, the Vols avoided the same the kind of late game breakdowns that have contributed to their losing five of their last six games entering today's contest.
Instead of stumbling down the stretch, the Vols played their best basketball when it mattered most.
After scoring just 19 points in the first half Tennessee shot 55% in the second half, and dominated the final six minutes.
Trailing 46-39 with 6:06 left in the game the Vols looked like they were headed for another SEC loss, but the players simply wouldn't let that happen today.
Jordan McRae, who scored 15 of his team high 17 points in the second half, started what would turn into a decisive 11-1 run with a three-pointer, trimming the lead to 46-42. McRae pulled the Vols to within one on a pair of free throws at 47-46, then Stokes gave Tennessee it's first lead since the opening moments when he muscled in close for a bucket and a 48-47 edge.
Stokes followed that basket up with a steal on the other end of the floor, then to cap it off, barely beat the shot clock on the other end with a short jumper that put the Vols up 50-47 with 2:28 left to play.
It was the kind of sequence that made it seem like it was finally going to be the Vols' day.
"We never gave up, never quit fighting, that's one of the things you can count on with this team," McRae said. "As far as myself, I didn't do anything differently in the second half, I felt like I was aggressive in the first half too. The only difference to me was the shots started falling later."
Lacey finally responded for Alabama and stopped the run with a clutch three-pointer that tied the game back up at 50-50 with 1:58 remaining in the game, replacing the all those good vibes in the arena with a high level of uncertainty.
The Vols had another answer though. McRae came through again, popping in a jumper to put the Vols back up by two with 1:30 left.
Alabama's chances at pulling it out took a severe hit when Rodney Cooper missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with :47 on the clock.
Trae Golden, who didn't hit a shot in the game going 0-4 from the floor, made Alabama pay on the next possession, draining a pair of free throws for a 53-50 lead.
Trevor Releford, who led all scorers with 18 points, kept things interesting with a three-pointer of his own with :18 remaining.
Golden left the door open on the other end though when he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 himself with :15 on the clock, setting up Lacey's final shot that Stokes snuffed out following an Alabama timeout.
"I really applaud the fact that this team came back after a tough loss with that hard hat on. It's so tough when you continue to lose the same way, too many different things and to find a way to win against a very talented team," Martin said of his team's effort.
"I think they were up six or seven with four minutes left in the game, something like that, and to buckle down and get stops, really compete, and to win. And also, with Trae Golden, a guy that's been up and down, to be in the game down the stretch and defend the way he defended, which is not an easy thing to do, I was happy to see that as well.
The head coach had plenty to feel good about after this one, first and foremost the simple fact that his team picked up a badly needed win. How they went about grabbing the victory, over a team that they melted down badly against in the final two minutes two weeks ago, was a sweet sight for the head coach.
After coughing up 21 turnovers in Thursday's loss at Ole Miss, the Vols had just 11 miscues tonight, and none of the costly variety in the final moments that have helped swing games away from them of late.
Tennessee also owned the glass, thanks in large part to Stokes' huge night, but he had some help. Armani Moore, who got his first career start, was a big factor on the boards again with seven rebounds.
The Vols crushed the Tide to the tune of a 37-22 margin on the glass, 15 of those coming on the offensive end. Tennessee turned those into 17 second chance points, a huge factor in their getting over the hump today.
Another common theme of the Vols recent struggles has been a general defensive let down. In each of their four conference losses, the opponent has shot more than 50% in the second half. Today Alabama was held to 44% from the field in the final 20 minutes, a stat that looks even better considering that Tennessee shut off the offensive glass on that end of the court and limited them to one shot on all but six possessions on the day.
"I wanted to be more aggressive going towards the boards today. If I didn't get the ball I was going to have to try and make my impact on the boards," Stokes said of his mindset. "I think that is something I haven't been doing this year as far as making an impact on the boards."
It's more than worth noting that Stokes also avoided the kind of foul trouble that's held him back in several recent games. He was whistled for two fouls today, but avoided the kind of ticky-tack calls from officials that have shackled him.
Clearly, playing without the specter of picking up cheap fouls seemed to free Stokes up to make an impact. It's also hard to ignore the fact that his performance came one day after his head coach made a call to the league office to complain about the way officials have treated the sophomore on the floor this year.
"That's the Jarnell that I think he can be a special player," Martin said in assessing Stokes' play. "He rebounds, he's physical. You couldn't take him off the floor.
"It was fun to see that, how he competes. I thought up until this point, even back when we played Alabama at their place, I thought he was very aggressive, just didn't get the ball as much, some fouls didn't go his way, but I thought he was aggressive and it's good to see him have a game like this week. It's good for him. I'm happy for him."
Tennessee returns to action on Tuesday night, hosting Vanderbilt in a game that tips off at 7 p.m. That game will be televised on ESPNU.
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