TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl reached into his bag of tricks to find yet another way for the Vols to escape with a victory on a cold-shooting night.
“How ugly was that?’’ Pearl said after Tennessee scored a 63-56 victory over Alabama on Tuesday night. “I’ve had other Tennessee teams that, after we played that poorly in the first half, we’d have been done.
“But this team continues to defend, and that showed fortitude and toughness.’’
“Ice” was the name of the defense the No. 8-ranked Vols (15-2, 3-0 SEC) used to stymie an athletic, revved up Crimson Tide (11-7, 1-3) before a crowd of 12,098 at Coleman Coliseum.
Scotty Hopson led UT with 17 points, freshman Kenny Hall recorded the first double-double of his career with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Wayne Chism scored 11 points despite playing only 21 minutes after running into early foul trouble.
But in what’s becoming a common theme, defense was the key for the Vols, who won back-to-back games in Tuscaloosa for the first time in 39 years and extended their winning streak to seven games heading into Saturday’s game at Georgia.
While UT shot just 39.3 percent from the floor and had 10 turnovers to eight assists, it limited Alabama’s leading scorer, Mikhail Torrance, to three points on 1-of-9 shooting and held the Tide to 37.9 percent shooting.
Alabama coach Anthony Grant looked down at the stat sheet after the game, bemoaning a squandered opportunity.
“Holding Tennessee to 39 percent from the field defensively, I would have thought that would have been good enough to win,’’ said Grant, whose team has led at the half of all four SEC games it has played, including 25-24 against the Vols. “But give Tennessee credit, they came in with a plan to load up on (Torrance) and do some different things to stop him from doing what he’s accustomed to.’’
Pearl explained how the Vols “Iced” Torrance with their new ball-screen defense.
“We try not to let the ball get to the screen; we contained Torrance, and he was the key to our scout, Pearl said. “It’s an NBA-style of ball-screen defense.’’
The Vols first took note of the defense — which prevents the ball from going middle, forcing it baseline into help defense — while scouting Gonzaga last year. Utah used it effectively against the Zags.
UT saw the defense again while on a trip to visit the Denver Nuggets coaching staff last summer and determined the defensive set was worth inserting.
But Tennessee still had to find ways to score to beat Alabama.
Hopson scored 11 of his 17 points in the first half with Chism seeing only five minutes of playing time.
“Scotty stepped up, and that was important,’’ Pearl said. “I had gotten Wayne out of the game with two fouls, and that’s one less weapon for us, and Scotty was feeling good.’’
Renaldo Woolridge scored the first four points of an 11-2 run early in the second half that put the Vols up 44-33, on a Hall dunk at the 11:19 mark.
But the Tide rallied with an 11-5 run of its own to close to 49-44 with 7:34 remaining.
That’s when Chism asserted himself on the offensive end, scoring his first points on a three-point play with 7:13 remaining.
Chism scored 11 of the Vols’ final 14 points from that point, turning back the Tide and preventing it from getting any closer than four.
“In crunch time, Chism got two baskets on me,’’ said Alabama’s JaMychal Green, who led the Tide with 16 points and 12 rebounds. “It was very frustrating; we didn’t get the stops when we needed them. They fought hard.’’
Quiet Return: Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins, who were reinstated Sunday after being suspended four games following their arrests on Jan. 1, did not play.