TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Tennessee stood four minutes away from a Southeastern Conference basketball road win.
The Volunteers then failed to give themselves a chance to close it out.
Alabama's pressing defense came up with three successive steals that fueled a late 10-0 run, and Trae Golden's tying 3-point attempt at the buzzer drew iron as the Crimson Tide pushed Tennessee's losing skid to three games with a 68-65 win at Coleman Coliseum on Saturday afternoon.
"You've got to step up late in games," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "It's not a case of beating the guys up, because the effort was there, but you've got to take care of the basketball in late-game situations and give yourself a chance to win games. We came up short in that department."
The aptly named Andrew Steele pilfered Tennessee's Jordan McRae once and Josh Richardson twice, and the easy ensuing points gave the Tide (9-6, 1-1) enough of a cushion to hold on late. The Vols led 55-54 at the final media timeout before Steele scored six straight points and set up two of Trever Releford's 15 points. Steele's three steals during the decisive stretch were nearly identical, as the Tide trapped a Tennessee guard near the half-court stripe and picked his pocket.
"They were pressing the whole game, but I think they had two different kinds of a press," said McRae, who registered his third straight 20-point game but added five turnovers to his 21 points. "This time they were pressing the middle of the floor. I can speak for me, that I wasn't ready for it.
"They hadn't done that all game. It looked like I was going one-on-one. Before I knew it, someone else was coming at me."
The Vols, now 0-2 in the SEC with a trip to Kentucky looming Tuesday, finished with 16 turnovers that led to 19 Alabama points. Many of the 16 were badly timed. After using ball movement to score on four consecutive trips and a take an eight-point first-half lead, the Vols (8-6) turned it over five times in the next four minutes to allow the Tide back in the game.
The late stretch was even more costly.
"I thought that stretch there was incredible, and Andrew spearheaded it with his intensity, energy and communication on the court," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. "When he shows that heart, his teammates are going to follow. Releford was able to do that early in the second half getting to the rim and with his defensive intensity."
After a scoreless first half, Releford attacked from the first moments of the second half. The Tide shot 62.5 percent after halftime against the Vols, who were never able to string stops together. Releford, Steele and Lacey combined to score 34 of Alabama's 44 second-half points.
Yet after the disastrous stretch, the Vols responded with three-point plays by McRae and Golden, who scored eight points after Martin removed him from the starting lineup. Martin said the move was the "best situation" for Golden and the Vols as they aim to allow the struggling point guard to relax and settle into games.
Lacey scored twice to keep Alabama ahead, but his missed trey provided the Vols two final chances at a tie.
Following a timeout with 19.9 seconds remaining, McRae drove and put back his own miss after the Vols designed a play for a tying attempt that Alabama properly defended, and Golden missed after Releford sank two free throws with 7.5 seconds on the clock.
"I told our guys after the game [that] minus the turnovers, that's the way I'm used to seeing Tennessee basketball being played," Martin said. "Hard-nosed effort, enthusiasm and playing with a lot of passion. We came up short."
No other Tennessee player scored in double figures, but Armani Moore's play was a bright spot. The freshman guard scored twice on drives, sank a corner 3-pointer, took a charge and skied above a crowd to tip a rebound to a teammate. Moore played two minutes total in the previous two games.
Jarnell Stokes struggled to a 2-of-7 shooting performance, recorded half of the Vols' eight free-throw misses and didn't play down the stretch.
Tennessee's poor SEC start may continue, but the Vols say they'll remain confident.
"Last year we started 1-3 and we finished second in the SEC," McRae said, "so we'll keep on pushing and grinding."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...