By Josh Ward
With all due respect to Tennessee fans, that wasn’t just like football.
Yes, the Tennessee basketball team beat Alabama on Wednesday night, as the Vols’ football team beat the Crimson Tide back in October.
But you had to notice the difference in the way Tennessee basketball won.
Josh Heupel’s football team needed all 52 points to beat Alabama in October. The Vols’ historical offensive showing made that magical night happen.
With Tennessee basketball, it was all defense. And one of the best defensive efforts you’ll see.
No. 1 Alabama is led by star freshman Brandon Miller. The hype around Miller is deserved; he has a skillset coveted by every NBA team.
Miller finished Wednesday’s game with an unimpressive stat line of 15 points on 4-of-11 shooting.
Hello, Jahmai Mashack. Tennessee’s sophomore wing limited Miller to only four points during the 27 minutes Mashack was on the floor.
How impactful was Mashack? He had the best +/- of any Tennessee player despite not scoring a point.
“I told him the other day after the (Missouri) game Saturday, I said, ‘From this point on, you’re not taking a backseat to anybody,’” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
He didn’t. Neither did Mashack’s teammates.
The Vols made everything difficult for Alabama. Every time a Crimson Tide player drove to the lane, someone was waiting.
Forward Jonas Aidoo blocked three shots and repeatedly left Alabama players off balance.
The Vols took 15 more shots than Alabama thanks to the Tide’s 19 turnovers.
“It was their physicality,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said after the game.
Tennessee used a simple equation: Elite defensive effort + unruly home crowd = bad day for the opposing offense.
Tennessee entered Wednesday’s game coming off consecutive losses at the buzzer.
Almost everyone wondered, “How will the Vols respond?”
Especially without starters Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips, both out due to injury.
While outsiders wondered about Tennessee’s confidence, the Vols never wavered.
“These guys stayed with it,” Barnes said. “They didn’t splinter. They stayed together.”
So now everyone will wonder what happens next.
Tennessee will play at Kentucky on Saturday. The Wildcats need a win to boost their NCAA Tournament resume and will be confident thanks to their win over Tennessee in January.
Tennessee’s remaining schedule also includes road games at Texas A&M and Auburn and a home game against Arkansas – all three opponents projected to make the NCAA Tournament.
Can Tennessee continue to bring the same intensity we saw against Alabama?
It looks like a prerequisite for the run Tennessee hopes to make in March.
“We feel like we can beat anyone in the country on any given day because we have the No. 1 defense in the country,” guard Zakai Zeigler said.
Tennessee basketball at its best has proven that’s true. You might say that’s just like football.