NASHVILLE — Trevor Releford has seized the moment lately when Alabama has needed someone to do so.
The all-SEC first team selection is averaging 20.4 points in his last six games and is coming off hitting the shot of the conference season — a 50-footer at the buzzer to beat Georgia in the regular-season finale.
“The last several ball games, it’s been the consistency that has allowed him to be in the position that he’s in,” said Alabama coach Anthony Grant about the junior combo guard.
As good as Releford is playing, the Crimson Tide are going to need more than him to win at least two games in the SEC Tournament to grab the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s attention.
A bubble team, the Crimson Tide (20-11) may be a fourth seed in the SEC Tournament, but a loss today against fifth-seeded Tennessee in today’s quarterfinals at 2:30 p.m. at Bridgestone Arena will likely end any NCAA hopes.
“There are moments of truth that you got be able to go and make plays,” Grant said. “We’ve got to get more guys embracing that moment instead of backing away from that moment and that’s the biggest thing going forward. We’ve got some young guys that haven’t done that consistently enough.”
The Volunteers (20-11) are coming off a 69-53 win Thursday against Mississippi State in the second round. Tennessee shot 51.8 percent from the field and limited the Bulldogs to 34.5 percent shooting.
“The one thing you come away with is just how physical they are,” Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. “They just do a great job of a terminology we call ‘walling up.’ Anytime you’re around the basketball, they just really put their body into you and make it hard and difficult for you to score and finish inside.”
Today, Releford and the Crimson Tide should present a more formidable challenge than the Bulldogs, who have just seven scholarship players.
“They have one of the best four-guard line ups in the country,” said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, who starts four guards and 270-pound bruiser Jarnell Stokes in the middle. “Trevor Releford is one of the best point guards in America, let alone the SEC.”
As of Thursday evening, Tennessee had a higher RPI than Alabama (55 to 61). Ray is certain the Vols are worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid.
“I thought Tennessee was an NCAA Tournament team before we played them,” Ray said. “I definitely think that now and I didn’t think they needed this win to validate them being an NCAA Tournament team.”
Martin said he came to that conclusion after Tennessee ended the regular season with a 64-62 win against Missouri, which had a 32 RPI.
His only concern now is Alabama.
“They have the parts to be successful,” Martin said. “They defend. Play hard. They’re well coached. We know it will be a fight.”
Alabama and Tennessee split its home-away series this season. The Crimson Tide won in Tuscaloosa 68-65, in January but lost in Knoxville, 54-53, twelve days later on Jan. 26.
“Finally got over the hump as far as winning close games,” said Stokes, a sophomore who had eight of Tennessee’s 15 offensive rebounds in the 54-53 victory against Alabama.
Tennessee won the overall rebounding battle, 37-22. Stokes had 18 total rebounds by himself.
“I feel like early in the season, we weren’t winning close games,” Stokes continued. “Around that time, we started pulling out those close games.”
Tennessee has won eight of its last nine games that include the two-point win against Missouri.
Alabama has won six of its last nine but were on a two-game skid before Releford’s miracle winner. The Crimson Tide are 7-3 in their last 10 games decided by four points or less.
“Sometimes as a player, you look at the result and the result the other day was a three-point win and a lot of excitement about the half-court shot that went in, but the process of getting us there, we’ve got do some things better if we’re going to have an extended postseason,” Grant said.
Today, Alabama will begin making its final impression on the NCAA for a tournament bid.
“We know what’s at stake,” Grant said. “It’s the last opportunity to try to put ourselves in position where we can play in the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully that’s something all of our guys are motivated and inspired to try to achieve. We’ve got to win. So the bottom line is we take care of ourselves one game at a time and everything else will take care of itself