All it took was nine wins in 10 games and a 60-foot prayer to set up today’s meeting between Tennessee and Alabama in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.
Much has happened since the Vols and Tide last met.
It was Jan. 26 when the two squared off in Knoxville. UT avenged a loss to Bama three weeks earlier with a 54-53 victory. The Vols then lost two of their next three, but found traction to capture nine of the next 10, including Thursday’s 69-53 win over Mississippi State in the SEC tournament.
Alabama found some footing as well.
Coach Anthony Grant’s team won eight of 12 since the loss at Thompson-Boling Arena. The stretch was enough to slide the Tide into a three-way tie with Kentucky and Ole Miss for second place in the SEC. Tiebreakers landed them as tournament’s No. 4 seed.
The last Bama win came in style. Scrambling up-court with the clock about to expire on a 58-58 tie with Georgia, junior guard Trevor Releford heaved a 60-foot shot from midcourt.
The 61-58 victory allowed Alabama to avoid a three-game losing streak to close the season after losses to Florida and at Ole Miss. Releford’s toss also landed the Tide a double-bye in the SEC tournament.
“They had one of the best four-guard lineups in the country with their guards,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Trevor is one of the best point guards in America. He’s is a big time scoring guard. They have the parts to be successful.”
Releford averaged 20.4 points over the last six games, shooting 56.8 percent from the field. Alabama’s other guards — Trevor Lacy, Rodney Cooper and Levi Randolph — combine to average exactly 30.0 points.
Those guards are the focal point of a pressing, trapping defense that has given the Vols fits.
“You can’t get into an up-and-down game with them,” UT senior guard Skylar McBee said. “We’ll have to slow it down and run our offense, get good looks.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.