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Tennessee 69, Alabama 68: Bama loses its cool in must-win game

Alabama built a 15-point lead but 20 turnovers and severe foul trouble allowed Tennessee to escape Tuscaloosa with a 69-68 upset.

What did we learn today?: Roughly two-thirds of the way through the season, Bama has arrived right back where it was opening night – with a front court in disarray and a one-point loss to a team it should have beaten. The Crimson Tide made 11 3-pointers and held UT to 35 percent shooting from the floor. But the Volunteers kept working the ball inside and Alabama kept taking the bait by fouling. Alex Reese, Javian Davis and Galin Smith each fouled out, leaving the Tide with a five-guard lineup in the closing minutes. Meanwhile John Fulkerson scorched the Tide for 22 points and Yves Pons flexed his muscles with 14 points and 14 rebounds to give the Vols a 42-33 edge on the glass. Once again there were extended stretches of the second half where Alabama simply quit trying for rebounds, and Tennessee cashed in with 20 second-chance points.

What were the biggest concerns?: It feels like piling on to criticize John Petty when he had 11 rebounds, seven assists and logged 37 minutes. But it was his technical foul midway through the second half after a tough whistle on a loose ball play that swung the momentum for good. Tennessee had started to find its groove but hadn’t quite gotten over the hump, with the Tide hanging onto a 50-43 lead. 95 seconds later the Vols had tied the game and Bama couldn’t ever shake the visitors the rest of the night. Petty’s outburst (his second technical in four games) was just the most visible manifestation of a team unraveling mentally as the pressure has ratcheted up and injuries have threatened to push it past the breaking point. At this point Nate Oats may need to worry less about how to put together a late miracle run to March Madness and more about how to shore up his players’ morale, lest an extended losing streak poison the first green shoots of growth he’s been able to coax out of what has been a toxic basketball culture.

What was the best part of the game?: All three freshmen who played had some encouraging moments, combining for 26 points. Jaden Shackelford had a dozen points and four rebounds, Davis made all four of his baskets and Jaylen Forbes logged 21 minutes and hit a pair of 3-pointers despite largely playing out of position to try and compensate for the missing Herbert Jones. Tomorrow is never promised in the transfer-happy world of college basketball, but if Oats can hang on to his young core there is hope for the future.

Who was the star?: For the second consecutive game, Bama’s leading scorer had his total padded by an end-of-game 3-pointer that only served to narrow the losing margin. But Kira Lewis battled back from a poor performance over the weekend, finishing with 19 points, four assists and three steals. Still only 18, he too is part of the hope for a brighter 2021 – if he resists the siren song of pro basketball.

What’s next?: The Tide tries to get back to .500 in SEC play Saturday evening at Georgia. Tipoff on the SEC Network is scheduled for 5 p.m. Central time.

Follow Chris DePew on Twitter @TideFansChris

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