The fourth-seeded Crimson Tide boosted their NCAA tournament hopes Friday by beating No. 5 seed Tennessee 58-48 in a Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinal, but Releford realizes that doesn’t guarantee anything.
He’d rather take Alabama’s fate out of the selection committee’s hands by winning two more games and earning the SEC’s automatic bid.
“We’ve got to worry about winning the (SEC) championship, not the NCAA tournament, because you don’t know how that can go,” said Releford, who scored 14 points. “We can control what we can control here. If we get the championship, it’s automatic. We don’t have to worry about anybody putting us in.”
Right now, it’s Tennessee’s turn to worry instead.
Alabama (21-11) and Tennessee (20-12) arrived in Nashville as NCAA tournament bubble teams, making this game particularly intriguing. Alabama responded by handing Tennessee only its second loss in its last 11 games to advance to a Saturday semifinal against No. 13 Florida (25-6), the tournament’s top seed.
After Tennessee beat Missouri 64-62 in its regular-season finale, coach Cuonzo Martin said his team had done enough to earn a spot in the 68-team field. He made his case again after Friday’s game.
The Vols hope history doesn’t repeat itself. Tennessee also made a late-season surge to move into NCAA tournament contention last season, but the Vols lost to Mississippi in the SEC tournament quarterfinals and landed in the NIT.
“I think we’re an NCAA tournament team,” said Tennessee guard Trae Golden, who shot 1 of 7 and scored just two points. “We’ll just have to wait and see Sunday. I definitely think we are one. I didn’t feel this confident last year. This year I feel like we’re in, but it’s not for me to decide.”
Tennessee and Alabama split two close regular-season meetings, with Alabama winning 68-65 at Tuscaloosa on Jan. 12 and the Vols surviving 54-53 in the Jan. 26 rematch at Knoxville. This game followed a similar pattern, as neither team led by more than five points in a first half that featured three ties and four lead changes.
Alabama pulled away in the second half by wearing Tennessee down with its defense.
Tennessee (20-12) shot 32.1 percent (18 of 56) overall, 50 percent (7 of 14) on free throws and 21.7 percent (5 of 23) on 3-pointers. After making six of its first seven shots Friday, Tennessee went 12 of 49 the rest of the way as Alabama had success utilizing a zone defense.
Alabama also made sure Tennessee didn’t dominate the boards as much as in their regular-season matchups. Tennessee had a plus-15 rebound margin in each of its two previous games with Alabama but outrebounded the Tide only 37-35 on Friday.
“Obviously they won the rebounding battle, but it was by a significant amount less,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “We felt it wasn’t the first shot that was beating us no matter what we did — man or zone — but it was the second shot.”
Levi Randolph scored 15 points for Alabama, which shot 41.3 percent (19 of 46) from the field, 78.9 percent (15 of 19) on free throws and 50 percent (5 of 10) from 3-point range. Nick Jacobs had six points and a career-high 12 rebounds.
Josh Richardson scored 16 points for Tennessee. Jarnell Stokes added 12 points and 13 rebounds for his 15th double-double of the season, the most by a Tennessee player since Bernard King had 19 in 1976-77.
Tennessee star Jordan McRae had been averaging 24.6 points over his last seven games, but he scored just nine points and shot 3 of 13 Friday while struggling with foul trouble.
“Part of it was us not hitting shots, but they did a good job of pressuring the ball the whole game,” Richardson said. “Shots were tough to come by.”
The Vols went on an early 9-0 run to grab a 13-8 lead, but Alabama quickly caught up.
Alabama had plenty of success driving to the basket early on with Releford and redshirt freshman Retin Obasohan, a reserve guard who hadn’t even played in the Tide’s two regular-season games with Tennessee.
Tennessee lost the lead by getting too dependent on its perimeter attack. The Vols attempted nearly as many 3-point shots (13) as two-pointers (14) in the first half.
The Vols trailed 44-41 midway through the second half when Golden and Armani Moore missed potential game-tying 3-pointers. Alabama followed with a 6-0 run to seize the momentum and grab a 50-41 advantage. Jacobs made consecutive baskets and McRae picked up his fourth foul during that critical spurt.
“It was a big moment for us,” Jacobs said. “Our whole thing was to go out, play hard, defend and let our defense become our offense. That’s what we really did. We all defended really well.”
Tennessee responded with five straight points to cut Alabama’s lead to 50-46, but that’s as close as the Vols would get. Alabama sealed the victory by scoring eight of the game’s final 10 points.