Alabama’s zone defense and Tennessee’s tired legs from having played Thursday contributed to the Vols’ 5-for-23 shooting from behind the 3-point arc, and the Crimson Tide turned resulting transition chances into a 58-48 victory in Bridgestone Arena.
The victory propels Alabama (21-11) -- which earned the last of the SEC’s two-round byes in the new 14-team format with the fourth seed -- into today’s noon semifinal against top-seeded Florida.
Today’s game is considered crucial for Alabama’s NCAA tournament chances. The Tide entered the day among the “next four out” in ESPN “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi’s projections.
Alabama coaches and players are more focused on winning the SEC tournament, which carries and automatic bid for the champion.
“I think we’re looking at each game as a great opportunity to get closer to a championship and not necessarily worrying about the NCAA tournament,” said junior point guard Trevor Releford, who scored 14 points Friday.
Fifth-seeded Tennessee (20-12), like Alabama considered to be on the NCAA tournament bubble, must hope for good news during Sunday’s selection show. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said the Vols have an NCAA tourney resume.
Tennessee entered the day 4-4 against top 50 teams and 9-9 against top 100s.
“We beat top 25 teams, four, if I’m not mistaken,” Martin said. “You beat top 50 teams, top 100 teams. Our resume stacks up against the best when you’re talking about a bubble team, per se.”
Alabama’s resume suffers from early-season losses to Cincinnati, Dayton, Virginia Commonwealth, Mercer and Tulane, with all losses falling during a stretch that saw senior guard Andrew Steele not play because of injury.
Friday saw Steele miss his second straight game and 11th this season. He sat out in sweats and wore a protective boot over his right foot, but Alabama made it four wins in a row without him.
Alabama got big performances guard Levi Randolph and reserve freshman guard Retin Obasohan -- 15 and nine points, respectively. Obasohan scored seven of his points in the first half, and helped Alabama’s bench outscore Tennessee’s 17-7.
“I thought he was very aggressive, made some big plays for us,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said.
Releford added 14 points, 12 in the first half as Alabama built a 31-27 halftime lead.
“Trevor Releford had one assist in the game but did a good job of controlling tempo, controlling the game,” Martin said.
It all started with zone defense against tired-legged Tennessee. The Vols, which beat Mississippi State on Thursday to reach Friday’s quarterfinals, got a game-high 16 points from guard Josh Richardson but shot 32.1 percent overall, 24.1 in the second half.
Jordan McRae, who averaged 24.6 points during a late-season surge that saw the Vols win nine of their previous 10 games, scored just nine points. He was 3-for-13 overall, 3-for-13 on 3-point tries.
Alabama was content to let Tennessee shoot 3-pointers while keeping center Moussa Gueye and reserve postmen Nick Jacobs and Devonta Pollard around the rim. Tennessee held a 37-35 rebound edge with 17 offensive boards, but the Vols outrebounded Alabama by 15 in both of their regular-season games.
Alabama also wanted to keep white jerseys in the way of Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, who finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds.
“He’s a load down there in the post. … The biggest thing was to make him have to work for everything that he got, and I thought our guys were able to do that,” Grant said.
Alabama was also able to turn Tennessee’s misses into transition baskets and shot 41.3 percent from the field, 48 percent in the first half.
“We really like to get out in transition and play up-tempo and push the ball and try to get easy layups,” Releford said. “We tried to do that today. For the most part, it worked.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, email@example.com. On Twitter @jmedley_star.