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February 18, 2012TUSCALOOSA | With a tailor-made excuse for letting its season swirl slowly down the drain, the University of Alabama men's basketball team decided to use the stopper on Saturday.
The Crimson Tide, playing without three starters, two suspended and one ailing, stifled Tennessee at Coleman Coliseum, taking a 62-50 win that was constructed primarily from desire and defense.
"It was a tremendous effort (today), but the guys have been tremendous all week in practice," Alabama (17-9, 6-6 Southeastern Conference) coach Anthony Grant said. "I told them that I wanted them to be aggressive and they were. It wasn't a perfect game, but we were able to play through any mistakes. I was very proud."
For most of the game, Alabama operated by surrounding one or the other of its 7-foot centers, Carl Engstrom and Moussa Gueye, with four guards. (Rodney Cooper and Andrew Steele could be called small forwards but played primarily on the perimeter).
The strategy allowed Alabama to press aggressively on defense and to attack the rim on offense, a difference most notable in the play of freshman Trevor Lacey. The Huntsville native scored 18 points to lead the Crimson Tide but did it by attacking the basket and earning 12 free throws.
"I stopped settling for jump shots," Lacey said. "I tried to attack the rim, and I have great teammates who were setting picks and doing the little things."
Trevor Releford, who underwent a concussion test Friday after taking a blow to the head in Thursday's practice, did not start, but played 27 energetic minutes off the bench, scoring 13 points.
"He was extremely aggressive, which is what I told him I wanted," Grant said. "I wanted him to push the ball upcourt, and he did that."
Alabama trailed early in the game but went on a 14-4 run midway through the first half to build a 27-17 edge with just over two minutes to play before halftime. UT's Trae Golden scored eight points over the remainder of the half, helping cut the UA halftime edge to 29-25.
Tennessee (14-13, 6-6) pulled even at 32-32 with 17 minutes remaining, but Alabama went on a 20-3 run over the next 11 minutes to put the game away.
The Crimson Tide press seemed to rattle the Vols during that stretch. Alabama finished the game with a season-high 15 steals along with seven blocked shots, six by Gueye.
"I thought they were hungry, trying to get a win," UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. "They're fighting to be a bona fide NCAA (Tournament) team, which I think they are.
"For us, when we weren't making shots, there seemed to be a level of hesitancy. Guys aren't making their shots, then you have guys who don't usually drive to the basket driving. And I thought their two big guys did a good job of being big, blocking shots and making it tough in there."
UT made just four of 20 3-point shots. The Vols' two starting guards, Skylar McBee and Cameron Tatum, were a combined 0 for 12 in the game, including 0 for 11 from beyond the arc.
Alabama was without freshman Nick Jacobs, who was hit in the mouth at last Monday's practice, developed an infection and required a root canal. Jacobs is expected to be available for Thursday's game at Arkansas. There was no update on suspended players Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green, although Grant said Friday that he would meet with the two this week.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.