Vols force 22 turnovers, hand Bama's Oats his biggest SEC setback

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee's Dalton Knecht dunks home two of his game-high 25 points during Saturday afternoon's 91-71 victory over Alabama inside the Food City Center.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee's Dalton Knecht dunks home two of his game-high 25 points during Saturday afternoon's 91-71 victory over Alabama inside the Food City Center.

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee surpassed its scoring average Saturday afternoon inside the Food City Center.

Alabama didn’t come close.

Dalton Knecht continued his scoring rampage for the No. 6 Volunteers, pouring in 25 points to give the transfer guard from Northern Colorado 128 in his last four games, but it was Tennessee’s defense that was most impressive during a resounding 91-71 runaway. The 20-point margin was the biggest Southeastern Conference defeat Alabama coach Nate Oats has sustained during his five seasons in Tuscaloosa.

The Crimson Tide entered Saturday among the four Division I teams averaging more than 90 points a game, but they were forced into 22 turnovers by the tenacious hosts. Alabama’s previous high this season in turnovers was 18 during an 87-74 loss at Arizona on Dec. 20, and senior guard Mark Sears committed seven against the Vols.

“That was as dominating of a performance as somebody has put on us in a long time around here,” Oats said. “They’re a tough, physical team, and we weren’t ready for it. I didn’t do a good enough job preparing them. They scored 23 points off our turnovers, and we gave up 17 second-chance points. When you give up 40 points off second-chance points and turnovers, you’re not going to win.

“They just dominated us in a big way, so we’ve got to go back and figure out how to get a little tougher and how we can take care of the ball a little better.”

Sears, who arrived as the league’s leading scorer at 19.6 points per game, surpassed that clip with 22, but none of his teammates reached double figures.

Tennessee had the much more balanced showing, with Jonas Aidoo complementing Knecht with 19 points and five rebounds, and with Jordan Gainey adding 15 points. Gainey was 3-of-5 on 3-point attempts after going 1-of-14 in his first five games of 2024.

“Even though I was going through a minor slump, I’ve been able to rely on my practice,” Gainey said of his highest tally since scoring 16 against Wofford in the third game of the season. “I just went back to the things I was doing and believed in them.”

Santiago Vescovi also pitched in for the Vols with 10 points and five assists.

Tennessee improved to 14-4 overall and 4-1 in SEC play. Alabama dropped to 12-6 and 4-1.

“Today we played against the best offensive team in the country, and Nate does a great job of putting his guys in position, and his schemes are great,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I’m proud of all of our guys, because they can score in so many different ways with different people, so it takes a team effort.

“We’ve got a group of guys who really do take pride in guarding their man one-on-one.”

Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler connected on 3-pointers within the game’s first four minutes to stake Tennessee to a 10-5 lead, and the Vols stretched that advantage to 16-7 on an Aidoo layup. Tennessee took its first double-digit lead at 23-13 on an Aidoo layup with 11:04 left in the half, and a Gainey 3-pointer at the 8:44 mark further expanded the lead to 30-16.

The Vols grabbed their biggest first-half lead at 43-27 on a Gainey putback of a missed Knecht layup with 4:17 before halftime and wound up taking a 50-37 lead into the break.

Tennessee forced the Tide into 13 first-half turnovers while committing only three. The only noticeable downside to Tennessee’s first-half performance was Aidoo and Vescovi combining for only 17 minutes due to foul trouble.

“We were fortunate Aidoo got those two fouls, or else we would have been down a whole lot more,” Oats said. “He was killing us. Knecht has been killing everybody, and he probably would have had 35 again if this would have been a close game.

“The fact it was 20 for most of the second half, I thought he let his foot off the gas. He had 17 at half, and he’s had some second halves lately where he’s had some explosions.”

The second half began with a Sears layup and a Knecht airball, but Alabama 6-foot-11 forward Grant Nelson picked up his fourth foul at the 18:43 mark, and the Vols went on a 9-2 run for a 59-41 lead. A Zeigler 3-pointer at 15:46 keyed Tennessee’s spurt, and a Zeigler assist on a layup by Knecht made it 67-48 with 11:19 remaining.

An Aidoo layup off an assist by Vescovi with 8:36 left put Tennessee up 73-52, and a Vescovi 3 with 5:29 to play made it 81-54.

“I told our guys that when we came up here and lost last year, we still won the league,” Oats said. “We got a lot tougher and played a lot better, so hopefully that same thing happens.”

Tennessee does not play again until visiting Vanderbilt next Saturday (6 p.m. Eastern on SEC Network). Alabama hosts rival Auburn on Wednesday night (7:30 on ESPN).

Odds and ends

Vescovi made his 128th career start Saturday, matching Allan Houston (1989-93) and Chris Lofton (2004-08) for the most in Tennessee history. … The Vols had 21 assists and seven turnovers, while the Tide had just nine assists to go with their 22 turnovers.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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