January 26, 2013 11:29:00 PM
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Jarnell Stokes kept waiting to hear the whistle.
When it never came, the University of Tennessee forward finally breathed a sigh of relief.
Stokes' defense on Alabama guard Trevor Lacey in the final seconds Saturday preserved Tennessee's 54-53 victory against the University of Alabama. The Volunteers (10-8, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) rallied from a 10-point deficit and pulled ahead for good in the final minute, but their victory wasn't secure until the final horn.
Alabama (12-7, 4-2) had a chance to win after Trae Golden missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity with 15.4 seconds left. After a scramble for the rebound, the ball went out of bounds off Tennessee with 11.8 seconds remaining.
The Crimson Tide worked the ball to Lacey, who left his feet and appeared to draw contact from Stokes.
Stokes said he didn't foul Lacey, but the 6-foot-8 sophomore still expected officials to make the call. The whistle never blew as Lacey's game-winning attempt seemed to deflect off Stokes' body and bounced back toward the Alabama bench as the buzzer sounded.
"I knew I didn't jump, but a lot of those calls go in guards' favor," Stokes said. "It wasn't a foul. I didn't move my feet and didn't leave my feet. A lot of calls have gone against us this year. I knew they would call a foul. Thankfully, they didn't."
Alabama coach Anthony Grant wouldn't say whether he believed a foul should have been called.
"I have to go back on film before I can comment on it," Grant said. "I want to see it again."
Stokes' play in the final seconds capped a brilliant performance in which he scored 15 points and pulled down a career-high 18 rebounds. Eight of his rebounds were at the offensive end. Stokes went 7 of 11 from the field as the Vols improved to 6-0 this season when he makes at least six baskets.
Tennessee outrebounded Alabama 37-22 and outscored the Tide 17-5 in second-chance points.
"He can be a special player," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "Rebounds. Physical. I couldn't take him off the floor. It was fun to see that, to see how he competed."
Jordan McRae added 17 points for Tennessee despite being shut out for nearly the entire first half. McRae's driving basket with 57.7 seconds left broke a 50-50 tie and put the Vols ahead for good.
Trevor Releford scored 18 points, Lacey had 11 points, and Rodney Cooper added 10 points for Alabama, which was seeking its fifth-straight victory.
"Before the game, I was telling everybody we're not trying to win five straight," McRae said. "We're just trying to win the game tonight, and we'll go on to Tuesday (against Vanderbilt) and worry about that game. We'll just keep doing it like that."
McRae entered the day averaging 21.6 points per game in SEC competition, ranking second in the league. He had scored 21 points in a 68-65 loss at Alabama two weeks ago. But he missed his first five shots Saturday and didn't score until the final three seconds of the first half.
His basket late in the first half gave the Vols some momentum. McRae's shot was part of a 9-0 run that carried over into the second half and helped Tennessee erase a 10-point deficit.
McRae sank a 3-pointer on Tennessee's first possession of the second half. The Vols tied the game 26-26 with 17 minutes, 56 seconds left when Kenny Hall converted an offensive rebound off McRae's missed 3-pointer.
"(McRae) came out very aggressive in the second half and did a good job for his team," Grant said. "They made an adjustment and got a couple of threes off of the zone. They came out and set a ball screen, and we didn't guard it as well as we needed to. He's a guy that, when he gets some rhythm, is going to be dangerous."
Alabama answered with six straight points to move back in front. The Tide stayed ahead for most of the second half and led by as many as seven.
Tennessee finally broke through by holding Alabama to two baskets in the final 9:04 of the game.
Stokes' basket with 3:31 left gave Tennessee its first lead since the opening minute. Stokes capped an 8-0 run by hitting a turnaround jumper that bounced off the right side of the rim and fell through as the shot clock expired with 2:28 remaining.
Just when it appeared Tennessee had seized control for good, Lacey sank a 3-pointer that tied the game at 50 with 1:58 left.
McRae missed a 3-pointer on Tennessee's next possession, but Stokes grabbed the offensive rebound and Tennessee called a timeout. The Vols got the ball back to McRae, who scored with just under a minute left.
Golden hit both ends of a one-and-one to extend the lead to 54-50 with 31.4 seconds left, but Releford responded by sinking a 3-pointer with 18.5 seconds remaining
That set up the frantic finish.
Martin said he expected the Tide would get the ball to Lacey if the game was on the line in the final seconds. Stokes made sure Lacey wouldn't deliver.
"I just threw my hands up and prayed in my head," Stokes said.
This time, the Vols' prayers were answered.
2. MSU baseball welcomes San Diego for three-game series COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Former Bulldogs showcase skills to NFL scouts COLLEGE SPORTS
4. Starkville boys pack state championship dreams for Jackson HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS