TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Three was not a magic number for Tennessee men's basketball Saturday.
Three straight turnovers led to a strained, dire ending.
A missed 3-pointer closed hopeful Volunteer eyes.
The result: a third straight loss.
Spiraling to an 0-2 start in SEC play and an 8-6 record overall, Tennessee lost 68-65 at Alabama's Coleman Coliseum.
Walking along courtside toward another disappointing postgame radio show, UT coach Cuonzo Martin described himself as "upset with the mistakes, not upset with the effort."
But with the loss, the mistakes are all anyone will talk about today.
Trailing 56-55 with just less than four minutes to go, the Vols hit a wall. It was in the form of a trapping, press defense in the middle of the floor. They couldn't get through.
A turnover by Jordan McRae led to an easy transition bucket by Alabama's Andrew Steele. Another turnover, this time by Josh Richardson, handed two free throws to Steele. A third turnover, again by Richardson, handed an open court layup to Bama's Trevor Releford.
In a blink, the Tide had their hound's-tooth hands around a back-and-forth affair. They never let go. A game-tying 3-point attempt by UT's Trae Golden — who began the game on the bench for just the second time in the Vols' last 48 games — drew iron at the final horn
"Those three turnovers, man, we need to expect the press at all times," said McRae, recounting his contribution to the collapse instead of his team-high 21 points. "I wasn't really expecting it — it looked like I was going one-on-one. I'm not going to say I panicked, but I couldn't grab the ball fast enough."
"You've got to take care of the ball in late-game situations and give yourself a chance to win the game," Martin added. "We came up short in that department."
They did in the second-half defense department, too.
Releford, Bama's leading scorer at 16.4 points per game, was held scoreless in 19 first-half minutes. In the halftime locker room, Tide coach Anthony Grant told Releford and his teammates to crank up the intensity and turn defense into offense.
That they did. An upsurge in defense let Releford loose in transition. The crafty junior guard scored eight of Bama's first 10 points in the half as Tennessee's 28-24 halftime advantage vanished.
UT recaptured the lead twice in the final minutes, but the Tide, led by Releford, always answered. They made 15 of 24 shots after halftime.
"I just took what the defense gave me," Releford said.
Those aforementioned mistakes wiped out a 40-25 rebounding margin for the Vols.
Tennessee shot 8-for-16 from the free-throw line and committed 16 turnovers.
Alabama (9-6, 1-1) made 16 of 19 from the stripe and committed just seven turnovers.
Martin's team is still without a true road win this season.
The afternoon in Tuscaloosa began with Golden wearing a long-sleeved warm-up shirt, standing on the right side of the welcoming line for the Tennessee starters. Having missed 22 of his last 26 shots over UT's past four games, the junior point guard played as a reserve.
"I thought it was the best situation for the team and for Trae — to get Trae relaxed and settled, get him back to playing the way we think he's capable of," Martin said.
Golden scored eight points in 24 minutes on 3-for-8 shooting.
Even with freshman point guard Armani Moore receiving increased minutes, the Vols played long stretches without a true ballhandler. McRae and Richardson handled the duties at times with varying success.
"They've been guards all their lives. If I'm not mistaken, where I'm from, guards usually handle the basketball," Martin said. "So if you're a guard, you should be able to handle the basketball.
Four Alabama players finished in double figures, led by 15 from Releford and Trevor Lacey. McRae was the lone Vol in double figures.
Tennessee will take its three-game losing streak to Kentucky on Tuesday. The Vols are 16-86 all-time in Lexington.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at twitter.com/BFQuinn