TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP)—With the game in doubt, No. 7 Tennessee turned to its shooters.
Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith delivered by both hitting three 3-pointers over the final 11 minutes to bail the Volunteers out of serious trouble and secure a 93-86 victory over Alabama on Tuesday night.
Lofton had five 3-pointers and 23 points for Tennessee (18-2, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) while Smith added four 3s and 22 points.
Smith’s final shot from beyond the arc with just under 3 minutes left turned back the Crimson Tide’s final attempt at a comeback.
Vols coach Bruce Pearl called it “a dagger shot.” Alabama’s Mikhail Torrance had another description: “The back crusher.”
“You’ve got to make those shots to win ball games,” Pearl said. “You love it when it comes from a senior.”
The Vols blew most of a 10-point lead but went 9-of-12 from 3-point range and shot 69 percent in the second half.
The Tide (12-9, 1-5) managed to pull within two points five times in the final 7 minutes, but never grabbed the lead.
Richard Hendrix’s inside basket made it 83-81 with 1:45 left. But Smith drained his fourth 3-pointer off a pass from Lofton and Lofton added two free throws with 59 seconds left for an 88-81 lead.
Alabama never found an answer for that duo.
“JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton just started knocking down 3s,” Tide guard Brandon Hollinger said. “We were contesting shots and they just kept knocking them down.”
The Vols, who lost at Kentucky last week and dropped from No. 3 in the rankings, overcame a season-high 23 turnovers.
The Vols had lost 16 of their last 17 trips to Coleman Coliseum and hadn’t won in Tuscaloosa since 1998.
“The big motivator is I’d never won here before,” Lofton said.
Tyler Smith had 17 points and 11 rebounds for Tennessee, which had a 45-36 rebound advantage. JaJuan Smith had five steals and was 4-of-7 on 3s while Lofton went 5-of-9 and has made 12 3-pointers in the last two games.
The Vols also went 19-of-28 from the free throw line.
Alonzo Gee led Alabama with 27 points, 21 in the second half, and had nine rebounds. Hendrix had 20 points and 12 rebounds while Torrance and freshman Senario Hillman both had 12 points.
“We had a hard time guarding Alabama,” Pearl said. “They’re really a good offensive team. They’ve got good offensive weaponry inside and outside. We tried to guard them 1-on-1 and they got by us.”
The Tide had 20 turnovers and made just 16 of 27 free throws.
“The third huge part of it was them just making some big shots,” Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. “That’s the difference in the game. The bottom line is they jumped up there and drilled a couple of big ones at key times.”
The Vols broke a 33-all halftime tie with a 12-2 run. It was capped by Ramar Smith’s behind-the-back pass to Tyler Smith for a dunk.
Gee kept the Tide in the game by scoring 13 points in a 6-minute span after Tennessee built a 10-point lead.
Alabama’s zone defense was effective in the first half, when Tennessee made just three 3s. The Tide had no answer for Lofton and JaJuan Smith in the second.
“I don’t know if we stopped them in our man defense once,” Gottfried said. “That wasn’t working. We wanted to try to keep them off-balance. We did at times. In the first half, the zone was very effective. The second half they just kind of found some soft spots, and that’s what a good team does. You’ve got to find some holes in the zone and they did.”
The Vols had finished a sloppy first half cold. They took a 28-20 lead on a 3-pointer by J.P. Price with 8:38 left, then managed only one more field goal and two free throws after that.
Tyler Smith’s two foul shots with 8 seconds left sent it into halftime tied. The teams committed 12 turnovers each in the fast-paced half after Alabama had only four in its last game against Auburn.