TUSCALOOSA — Alabama’s lone senior, Andrew Steele, doesn’t start, scores a shade under four points a game and won’t be a threat to make All-Southeastern Conference.
But Crimson Tide coach Anthony Grant might vote him his team’s MVL — most valuable leader — after he jump started Alabama during a key stretch of Saturday’s 68-65 home win over Tennessee. The game drew 12,093 in the school’s first home basketball game since students returned for the spring semester.
With fewer than five minutes to play, Alabama (9-6, 1-1 SEC) turned to a full-court press and asked Steele to help provide the gas. After trailing 55-52, the Crimson Tide managed a 62-55 lead with 2:55 to play, as Steele contributed six points, three steals and an assist in that stretch. His three steals came on consecutive Tennessee possessions.
“At the end, Andrew Steele was the difference,” Grant said.
“The game could’ve gone either way, but he said, ‘No.’ His heart and his
will led us, and his teammates followed.”
Steele, a 6-foot-4 guard, finished with 11 points and four steals in 18 minutes of play, while Trevor Lacey and Trevor Releford each hit 15. They helped Alabama get its first conference win and help break a skid in which the Tide had lost six of its previous eight.
“The last several weeks, we’ve gotten better in practice, but it wasn’t translating to games,” Grant said.
Grant added how much it helped to have Steele back on the court. Steele missed a seven-game stretch as he dealt with a sports hernia, which required surgery. Including five games to
open the season and the Tide’s last three contests, the team is 7-1 when Steele plays.
Grant said as soon as Steele rebuilt his conditioning, he added a level of intensity to the Crimson Tide practices. For now, Grant appears content to allow Steele to come off the bench, and when he enters, he gives the Tide a weapon in the full-court press.
“The press is something we take pride in,” Steele said. “It’s something we work on all year. We all talk about style of play and making teams uncomfortable. It’s something that we’re use to, and for us, I think its important for us to turn our defense into offense.”
Even with Steele pushing the Tide to a big run, Tennessee (8-6, 0-2) nearly rallied. Jordan McRae scored the final five of his game-high 21 points in the final minute as the Vols trimmed Alabama’s lead to 66-65.
Tennessee then fouled Releford immediately, and he made two foul shots to give the Tide a 68-65 lead with 7.5 seconds to go.
Trae Golden’s 3-pointer before the buzzer didn’t fall, and Alabama celebrated.
Releford’s foul shots topped a second half in which he scored all of his points. A faster pace created more transition, which allowed Releford more opportunities. And that’s exactly what Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin didn’t want.
“He must’ve had eight in transition, either baskets or free throws,” Martin said. “I told my staff he’s one of the best in the country in transition. ... He’s very crafty with the ball.”