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Tennessee’s toughness proves the Vols have what it takes in March

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There’s no need to question if Tennessee is ready for March basketball. 

The Vols won at Alabama on Saturday night with toughness. 

And what a win it was for Tennessee. 

The Vols can clinch a share of the SEC regular season championship with one more win. 

And two more wins would assure Tennessee of its first outright SEC title since 2008 and only the second since 1967.

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Tennessee also has a legit shot at the program’s first ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

A lot was on the line for Tennessee on Saturday.

Despite only shooting 36 percent from the field and trailing by seven points midway through the second half against Alabama, Tennessee found a way to win 81-74.

The Vols rallied thanks to its defense — still the strength of this year’s team — and timely plays that took momentum away from Alabama. 

Tennessee’s most important stretch occurred when Alabama was holding onto a two-point lead with nearly six minutes remaining in the game. 

Zakai Zeigler drove into the paint and kicked the ball out to Jahmai Mashack, who knocked down a three to give Tennessee a one-point lead. 

Mashack made an immediate play on defense, intercepting a pass and sending the ball back to Zeigler, who found Jonas Aidoo in transition for a score. 

That span of less than 20 seconds made all the difference in the game. 

And Mashack, a reserve player who can often be overlooked, was at the center of it. 

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes told everyone in December that Mashack would be a crucial player for this team. 

“His role is as important as anybody on this team,” Barnes said. “What Jahmai does wins basketball games for you.”

Mashack proved Barnes right on Saturday night.

The Vols wouldn’t have beaten Alabama without Mashack. 

Or Zeigler, who only made five of 18 shots but finished with a team-high 18 points.

The Vols’ point guard continues to find ways to make plays for Tennessee. 

And Tennessee’s defense kept Alabama from having a chance in the end. 

The Crimson Tide figured some things out late in the first half, rallying from an 11-point deficit to lead by two at halftime. 

They increased the lead in the second half, but then went cold. 

Tennessee’s pressure on defense played a huge part. 

Alabama made only three of its final 23 attempts as the Crimson Tide struggled to find open looks. 

Alabama guard Mark Sears took a three to tie the game in the final minute. 

But it was a forced shot when he took it — and the result was what you’d expect. 

Tennessee’s offense wasn’t at its best on Saturday night. 

Dalton Knecht, the likely SEC Player of the Year and first-team All-American, scored just 13 points and made only one of his seven three-point attempts. 

Even with his struggles, Knecht hit a key shot late in the game when the Vols needed it. 

And other players stepped up. 

Josiah Jordan-James made three of his six three-point attempts and grabbed 13 rebounds. 

Santiago Vescovi had three steals on defense. 

Jonas Aidoo made plays in the second half after sitting for most of the first half due to foul trouble.

The result: a huge win on the road that could change the course of Tennessee’s season.

The Vols still have business to take care of.

They’ll travel to South Carolina on Wednesday to take on a team that’s already won in Knoxville this season.

And next Saturday won’t be easy when Tennessee hosts Kentucky.

But Tennessee made a statement with its win at Alabama on Saturday night.

The Vols did it with strong defense and clutch plays, and they did it in a wild road environment.

Tennessee won it with toughness. 

That’s what it takes in March. 

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