Tennessee basketball doomed by second-half turnovers against Alabama in SEC Tournament
NASHVILLE — The best version of Tennessee basketball showed up at Bridgestone Arena for a fantastic 23 minutes Saturday.
It took less than five minutes to undo all the good from those 23 minutes, as a familiar flurry of fumbles foiled Tennessee's hopes of playing for an SEC Tournament title Sunday.
The fourth-seeded Vols fell 73-68 to top-seeded Alabama (23-6) at Bridgestone Arena after they surrendered at 15-point lead and missed a pair of free throws in a one-point game with 25 seconds to play.
“We got lackadaisical with the ball," said Keon Johnson, who had five turnovers. "It started with one, then it led through the whole team. Those turnovers that we had, they pretty much led to points, which can’t happen. We have to take care of the ball through the whole game.”
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UT had 19 turnovers, 11 of which came in the first 12:24 of the second half as the Vols blew a 15-point lead. Johnson and Jaden Springer had 10 turnovers combined.
Johnson led the Vols (18-8) with 20 points and nine rebounds. Springer had 18.
John Fulkerson did not play for Tennessee after suffering a concussion and facial fracture against Florida on Friday. Coach Rick Barnes is unsure of Fulkerson's status for the NCAA Tournament. He will be evaluated daily.
The final minute
Yves Pons swished a 3-pointer with 43 seconds to play to get Tennessee within 69-68. Barnes subbed Davonte Gaines for Santiago Vescovi, who Alabama had been trying to put in difficult defensive positions against forward Herbert Jones.
Gaines played great defense, getting a stop on Jones. He grabbed a rebound and was fouled with 25 seconds to play.
The sophomore guard missed both free-throw attempts.
“We put him in to do the job and he did the job," Barnes said. "He played great post defense. He came up with a big rebound. ...
“We all feel bad for him that he didn’t knock those down. It would have given us a chance to take the lead. I am proud of him because he did the job we asked him to go in there and do."
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Gaines walked back to the bench with his head down after UT fouled Alabama. Many teammates, including Fulkerson, came over to console Gaines. He still had a towel over his head walking down the tunnel after the game.
Tennessee couldn't get a good shot on its final offensive possession down three with five seconds to play. Victor Bailey Jr. airballed a desperate 3-pointer.
That Tennessee turnover thing
Johnson drove and passed to Josiah-Jordan James in the corner early in the second half. James swung to Vescovi, who knocked down a 3-pointer to put UT ahead 48-33.
Then the Vols unraveled. Tennessee had six turnovers in the following 3:12, as Alabama rushed back into the game.
The Crimson Tide went on a 14-0 run to trim UT’s lead to 48-47.
“When I felt like the momentum really swung was when we started turning down shots that led to turnovers," Barnes said.
Tennessee had multiple offensive fouls in the turnover-riddled stretch, including on back-to-back possessions from Springer and Johnson.
Uros Plavsic plays key role again
Barnes said Friday that Uros Plavsic has settled into his role for Tennessee in recent weeks. The Vols turned to the little-used sophomore center for the second straight game.
The 7-foot Plavsic played a season-high 17 minutes Saturday after playing only 39 all season entering the SEC Tournament. He had four points and two rebounds.
He played five minutes against Florida on Friday.
Tennessee will learn its NCAA Tournament fate on Selection Sunday (6 p.m. ET, CBS).
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.