TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) The Tennessee Volunteers powered their way to the top of the Southeastern Conference with wins over a pair of top-15 teams.

They can wrap up a championship by successfully navigating a similarly challenging closing week.

Zakai Zeigler scored 18 points and made four 3-pointers as No. 4 Tennessee beat No. 14 Alabama 81-74 on Saturday night to cap a huge week and take sole possession of the SEC lead.

“We’ve got a lot of these guys that have been with us for a long time and they’ve been in games like this,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, whose team swept the Crimson Tide. “We knew it would be a difficult game. We know how explosive they can be.”

The Volunteers (23-6, 13-3 SEC) came into the game tied with defending champion Alabama (20-9, 12-4) atop the league standings and delivered their second straight big win heading into the final week of the regular season.

Tennessee, which beat No. 11 Auburn 92-84 on Wednesday, held the nation's No. 2 scoring team without a field goal for more than nine minutes down the stretch. Next up: No. 18 South Carolina on the road, and a home game against No. 16 Kentucky.

Josiah-Jordan James’ 3-pointer from the left corner gave Tennessee a 75-70 lead with two minutes left. Alabama finally snapped a 1-of-17 shooting stretch with Mark Sears’ layup with 1:14 left. It was the team's first basket since the 10:17 mark.

But it wasn't nearly enough to avoid a body blow to the Tide's hopes of a repeat SEC title.

“It’s out of our hands now,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. "We’ve still got a shot at it but we’re going to have to get some help to earn a share of it at this point. It’s a little disappointing.

"They’re a tough, veteran team. They had a lot of guys step up and make big shots.”

Zeigler made four free throws and Jonas Aidoo added a pair over the final 29 seconds to seal the Volunteers' win. Aidoo overcame early foul trouble to score 10 of his 12 points in the second half.

James had 11 points and 13 rebounds, and Tennessee won despite a subpar night from the SEC's leading scorer. Dalton Knecht, who tied his career high with 39 points against Auburn, had 13 points and was 1 of 7 from 3-point range.

Sears, who entered as the SEC's No. 2 scorer, had 22 points and six assists for Alabama. Aaron Estrada added 16 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Nick Pringle had 13 points and nine boards.

Down virtually the entire first half, Alabama scored the final 12 points for a 41-39 lead. Estrada pushed the Tide ahead on a layup with 24 seconds left, and the Vols missed their final seven shots.

“The first half, that may be the most airballs I’ve ever seen us shoot in a half,” Barnes said.

Alabama forward Grant Nelson fouled out with 6:43 left after scoring three points, nine below his average.


Tennessee: Experience showed with key plays by veterans like Zeigler, Jahmai Mashack and James. Mashack gave Tennessee the lead for good with a 3 and set up Aidoo's late dunk with a quick steal. The Vols committed just two turnovers in the second half.

Alabama: G Latrell Wrightsell Jr. missed his fourth straight game with a head injury. ... Had its stretch of nine consecutive SEC games with 80-plus points snapped. ... Shot just 9 of 37 on 3-pointers (24.3%).

“There’s championship-level plays that we didn’t make,” Oats said.


Tennessee visits No. 18 South Carolina on Wednesday and closes the regular season Saturday against No. 16 Kentucky.

Alabama finishes at No. 24 Florida on Tuesday and against Arkansas on Saturday.


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