NASHVILLE — Sitting courtside, Cuonzo Martin ran his thumb across his iPhone.
La Salle fell to Butler. Virginia took a loss to N.C. State.
Martin winced, shaking his head. The Tennessee men’s basketball coach learned just how big of an opportunity existed Friday afternoon.
Behind him, a Bridgestone Arena employee pushed a broom across the floor, wiping away the remnants of the Vols’ 58-48 SEC tournament quarterfinal loss to Alabama.
The chance was there for Tennessee to solidify its spot in the NCAA tournament field. That chance was lost. The ink has dried on UT’s resume and now all clocks are set for 6 p.m. Sunday — the NCAA tournament Selection Show.
“We did our job,” Martin declared. “We deserve (the NCAA tournament).”
Friday could have helped that argument. Instead,
the fifth-seeded Vols succumbed to a relentless Alabama defense. They made just 18 of 56 field goals, missing 22 of 29 in a decisive second half.
“I told our guys, ‘You won nine of the last 10 — now you’re nine of your last 11 — you just happened to lose one in the SEC tournament,’ ” said Martin, whose Vols stand at 20-12 on the year. “We didn’t play well. Now we keep moving.”
Leading 31-27 after a hotly contested first half, fourth-seeded Alabama (21-11) took control midway through the second half. Holding a 44-41 edge with just more than 12 minutes remaining, the Tide rattled off six straight points to push UT into a nine-point hole. The Vols couldn’t recover.
After Tennessee cut the deficit to four with five minutes remaining, Alabama’s Levi Randolph banked in a circus shot to quell the momentum.
Josh Richardson led the Vols with 16 points. Making six of 12 shots, the sophomore guard was the lone UT player to shoot 50 percent or better.
“I was struggling and Jordan (McRae) got in foul trouble,” Trae Golden said. “(Richardson) picked up the slack for us. He was great.”
McRae, a first-team All-SEC selection, was saddled by what he called, “Dumb fouls here and there,” and languished through a 3-for-13, nine-point day. Golden powered UT to an early 13-8 lead with four assists in the game’s opening five minutes. He finished with five and made only one field goal.
McRae, Golden and Jarnell Stokes combined for nine points in the second half.
“We’re a tournament team,” Stokes said. “There’s no way one game should define our season like a lot of people are making it seem.”
Randolph led the Tide with 15 points, while fellow guard Trevor Releford added 14. The win pushed Alabama, a bubble team in its own right, to a semifinal today against top-seeded Florida.
With 12 points and 13 rebounds, Stokes notched his 15th double-double of the season, the most by a Vol since Bernard King had 19 in 1976-77.
It wasn’t enough.
Alabama made 12 of 15 second-half free throws and let its defense handle the rest. After McRae hit a 3-pointer cutting the Tide’s lead to 44-41, Tennessee could only muster two made shots in the closing 12 minutes, 10 seconds — both in transition.
The Vols opened the game making six of seven shots. They missed 37 of their next 49.
“I don’t know if we were necessarily frustrated, we just didn’t make shots,” Martin said. “When you’re in a grind-it-out-game with a score of 58-48, a lot of guys didn’t make shots and plays.”
And now, in Golden’s words, UT’s fate is “in someone else’s hands.”
Today will be a long day. Sunday will be longer.
“It’s one of those things where you worry yourself to death on something you can’t control,” UT’s Skylar McBee said.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn