NASHVILLE — The Alabama bubble is getting bigger while the one for Tennessee may have burst.
In what may have been a play-in game to an NCAA Tournament play-in game sometime next week, the fourth-seeded Crimson Tide got a crucial 58-48 victory over fifth-seeded Tennessee behind 15 points from Levi Randolph and 14 more from Trevor Releford before a partisan crowd of 15,649 in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals Friday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena.
The critical win may have launched Alabama (21-11) into the NCAA Tournament, though there is still much to be decided before the 68-team field is announced Sunday evening. ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi had both the Tide and the Volunteers in his last four teams out of the Big Dance as of early Friday evening.
“You don’t have no choice but to see it watching ESPN and highlights and stuff like that,” said Trevor Lacey, who scored six points. “We don’t feed into it as far as if they don’t mention our names and saying we’re not good enough and we’re on the bubble. We just know that we have to win games and to eliminate all that we want to come here and win a (SEC) championship and have no doubt that we’ll be in.”
To win the SEC Championship Alabama will first have to knock off top-seeded Florida (25-6) at noon today. The Gators defeated the Crimson Tide 64-52 in Gainesville two weeks ago.
“We had them on the ropes at their house but they’re a good basketball team, they finished it out, they won,” Releford said of Florida, which cruised past LSU 80-58 on Friday. “This game we got to learn how to take their punches and hit back.”
Both teams came out hitting Friday in a physical game which was separated by no more than four points in the first half. Releford scored 12 points in the first including a three-pointer in the closing seconds to help the Tide take a 31-27 lead at the break.
Randolph made a pair of strong plays in the second half to put the game away after the Vols scored the first four in the second to tie the game at 33.
Randolph drove right and beat both
Skylar McBee and Kenny Hall to the hoop, drawing a foul on McBee and converting the three-point play to make it 41-36 with 14:34 to go. The Tide built the lead to 50-41 and Tennessee responded with five straight, capped off with a jam by Jarnell Stokes (12 points, 13 rebounds) to make it 50-46 with 5:27 to go.
Randolph stopped the Vols run with a theatrical spin move in the middle of the lane and banked it in late in the shot clock to make it a six-point game which never got closer.
“I knew the shot clock was running down and we had to get a shot up on the glass,” he said.
Josh Richardson scored 16 points for Tennessee (20-12), which won nine of its last 11 games. Alabama held Tennessee’s other top scorers Jordan McRae (nine) and Trae Golden to 11 total points on 4-for-20 shooting from the field with only one free throw attempt by utilizing a zone defense for most of the game.
“I think if you look at their success of late, with Stokes and McRae and Golden, those guys have been able to do a great job of getting themselves to the free throw line and converting along with the other things they do well,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “So we just felt like (the zone) gave us a chance to limit some of those opportunities.”
Grant did not want to discuss the Tide’s NCAA Tournament chances, reiterating the importance of the game with Florida, but there’s no question what the impact of wins means to a team on the bubble this time of year.
“Last year everyone in this room except for (freshman) Devonta (Pollard) had the experience, the NCAA Tournament,” Lacey said. “Releford preached to us, we don’t want to go back to the NIT.”