Riding firmly on the bubble and trailing rival Alabama with nine minutes left, the Tennessee Vols turned to high-scoring guard Jordan McRae, who was struggling offensively and in foul trouble.
He flew to the basket to find a great deal of contact.
The first-team All-SEC player headed to the bench with his fourth foul and wouldn’t score another point.
With their best players struggling to score, the fifth-seed Tennessee Vols were bounced from the SEC Tournament Friday in Nashville, Tenn. by the four-seed Alabama Crimson Tide, 58-48.
UT head coach Cuonzo Martin knows his team missed out on a great opportunity.
“We had some looks, just didn’t capitalize on them,” Martin said. “Both teams competed, they just made the plays to win the game.”
McRae snapped a nine-game streak of scoring in double digits, finishing with nine points on just 3-for-13 shooting. He spent much of the game’s last 10 minutes on the bench with four fouls, and wasn’t able to get his offense going upon re-entering.
He would foul out with 47 seconds remaining as Vol fans headed for the exits.
“He probably wasn’t able to get into a flow,” Martin said of McRae’s foul trouble. “He leads the league in minutes played, so he couldn’t really get into a flow of the game. It made it tough for him to be aggressive in attacking the rim.”
There’s no consensus opinion on whether the Vols (20-12, 11-7 SEC) are in or out of the NCAA Tournament field of 68. But Vols forward Jarnell Stokes, who finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds, made the case for why his team desereved a berth.
“We beat the top teams in our conference,” Stokes said. “Toward the midpoint of our season we had to adjust to a couple things, but we went eight for nine to end. I think we’re a tournament team.”
His head coach echoed that sentiment.
“Our resume stacks up against the best when you’re talking about a bubble team,” Martin said.
The Vols trailed by just four points heading into halftime, but a 24.1 percent shooting performance in the second half left them with a deficit late that they couldn’t overcome. Among their struggles was a 5-for-23 performance behind the arc.
It was no surprise when the Crimson Tide (21-11, 12-6 SEC) opened up with a full-court press to try and force turnovers, something they had success doing in the season’s first match-up between the two teams.
Even though the 10 turnovers weren't a huge problem, Alabama’s ability to maintain pressure all 40 minutes certainly wore on the Vols.
“Part of it was us not hitting shots, but they did a good job of pressuring the ball the whole game,” said Josh Richardson, who scored a game-high 16 points. “Shots were hard to come by.”
Stokes pointed out the Crimson Tide's ability to get back into zone defense after executing their press, and said that made it tough for him to score.
"I think they did a good job running the press and then getting back into the zone," Stokes said. "Any time a team plays the zone, it’s hard for the big man to score."
Free-throw shooting played a huge role in Tennessee’s loss. The Vols made just 7-of-14 attempts at the line, compared to Alabama’s 15-for-19 shooting at the charity stripe.
Eliminated from the SEC Tournament, the Vols rest their hopes of receiving a NCAA bid on Selection Sunday. Martin said he hasn’t begun to think about what his team will do Sunday, but assured they’d watch together.
“We’ll watch it privately,” Martin said. “Whether it’s at my house or somewhere in [Thompson-Boling Arena] we’re not sure, but we’ll watch it certainly.”