NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Bad as Alabama looked while trailing by 15 points, Herbert Jones still believed the Crimson Tide could shift momentum by stringing baskets and stops together.
The Southeastern Conference’s best player had a huge role in achieving both goals, and his teammates joined in to help them reach the doorstep of their biggest prize in 30 years.
Jones scored 15 of his 21 points in the second half and No. 6 Alabama rallied from a big deficit in the final 17 minutes to beat Tennessee 73-68 Saturday in the SEC Tournament semifinals.
“At halftime, we decided to just come out and play our brand of basketball,” said Jones, chosen this week as the league’s top defender and player. “We came out and competed on the defensive end and that led to our offense.”
Jahvon Quinerly added 19 points, including two free throws with 15.5 seconds left, to help the Crimson Tide hang on.
“We came out a little bit slow, down nine going into the half and we fought our way back slowly but surely,” Quinerly said.
Top-seeded Alabama (23-6) will face LSU, a 78-71 upset winner over No. 8 Arkansas, on Sunday in the championship in search of its first SEC Tournament title since 1991.
Tennessee (18-8) awaits an NCAA Tournament seeding on Sunday.
The Volunteers trailed 69-68 when Davonte Gaines missed two foul shots with 25 seconds left. Down 71-68, Victor Bailey Jr. missed a 3-point try with nine seconds to go.
Behind 48-33 with 16:56 remaining, the Crimson Tide stormed back with help from a 14-0 run to lead 60-59 with 5:26 left, their first edge since the opening basket. They went ahead with just over four minutes left as Jones whipped a pass out to behind the arc to wide-open Keon Ellis for a tiebreaking 3-pointer to put Alabama up for good.
Jones made one of two free throws with 3:24 to make it a two-possession game before later feeding Quinerly in the lane for a layup and a 69-65 lead. Yves Pons’ 3-pointer got Tennessee within 69-68 with 41.4 seconds left, but Quinerly added two free throws and Ellis two more with 3.7 seconds left to seal a tense game.
Jones also had 13 rebounds and four assists for the Tide, who won despite shooting 37%. But they held the Volunteers to 35% shooting after halftime and made key 3s despite a shaky start. Quinerly was 8 of 13 shooting off the bench.
It was one of those gut-check wins, where guys expect to win,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “I think we’re 6-3 in one- or two-possession games this year. Last year, I believe we were 4-7. It’s one of those deals where our guys have changed their attitude. They expect to win.”
Keon Johnson had 20 points and Jaden Springer 18 for Tennessee, which sought to make its third consecutive SEC final and win its first title since 1979.
The Vols committed 11 of their 19 turnovers after halftime and were beaten 23-16 in rebounding.
“They packed the paint in on us, which we’re a driving team,” Johnson said. “We just had to get the ball moving side to side so we could get the shots that we were looking for, which we didn’t do and it led to turnovers.”
The game began with key players from teams sidelined by injuries.
Tennessee played without forward John Fulkerson, who sustained a concussion and facial injuries after taking two elbows from Florida’s Omar Payne in Friday’s quarterfinal victory. Alabama missed freshman guard Josh Primo, who was on crutches with his left knee in a brace after being injured in the second half against Mississippi State. Oats said afterward that Primo will be evaluated daily but won’t need surgery.
Tennessee: Fulkerson’s absence left the Volunteers without a big rebounder, but teammates picked up the slack by grabbing Alabama’s misses from long range and scoring in transition. Johnson’s hot hand early helped but the Vols faltered down the stretch.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide have thrived from long distance all season and weren’t about to change, even without Primo. It didn’t start well but ended better as Ellis hit a big 3 to help the Tide finish 7 of 28. Quinerly provided another big lift off the bench with his 11th consecutive double-digit scoring effort.
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