Releford and Trevor Lacey each scored 15 points and Steele sparked a key late run to lift the Crimson Tide to a 68-65 victory over Tennessee on Saturday.
"I thought really Releford set the tone early in the second half with his intensity, his ball pressure, his aggressiveness offensively," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. "At the end of the game Andrew Steele was the difference. You put him in and he just changed the whole complexion of the game. He took a game that could have gone either way and with his heart and will said, 'No, we're getting this.' And our team fed off it.
"That's what we've been looking for, really."
Releford scored all of his points in the second half and made two free throws with 8 seconds left for the Tide (9-6, 1-1 Southeastern Conference), which had lost three of four games.
Then Trae Golden missed a potential tying 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Volunteers (8-6, 0-2) to their third straight loss. They didn't have any timeouts left to set up a play.
Levi Randolph scored 12 for the Tide. Steele had 11 points and four steals and helped spark a 10-0 late run for Alabama, which used a full-court press to force several turnovers during that spurt. The Tide was 15-of-24 shooting in the second half (63 percent) after struggling to a 27-percent clip (8 of 30) before halftime.
Jordan McRae scored 21 points for Tennessee in his third straight game with 20-plus points.
Steele scored six straight points then made a steal and dished to Releford for a layup and a 62-55 lead with 2:55 remaining. It was the Tide's biggest lead of the game after trailing by eight in the first half.
Golden answered that run with two drives and a free throw to make it 62-60 with 1:52 remaining but then missed a shot going for three in a row. Lacey responded with a jump shot and fast-break layup.
Lacey then missed a contested 3-pointer after Alabama ran most of the shot clock down. McRae cut it to 66-65 after following his own missed shot with 8 seconds left after the Vols didn't get any good looks from beyond the arc.
"We actually had a play drawn up for 3 but if we don't have it right way, then go for a two-pointer and attack the rim," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "The goal was to get to the rim and at least get a basket."
Releford was quickly fouled and made both attempts, leaving the Vols with one last chance that didn't go down.
Golden, who had eight points, came off the bench for the first time this season.
Tennessee had a nice turnaround defensively after giving up 85 points to Memphis and 92 to Mississippi in back-to-back defeats, holding to Alabama to 24 points in the first half.
"I told our guys after the game, minus the turnovers, that is the way I am used to see Tennessee basketball played ... with a lot of passion, Martin said.
Releford, who had a career-high 26 points Wednesday night in a loss at No. 10 Missouri, missed all three field goal attempts in the first half and then had eight points in the first 3:06 to open the second.
"With the pressure (the Tide was) getting out there it allowed me to get in transition and make easy buckets," Releford said.
Releford helped lead Alabama to an 18-9 run out of the locker room for a five-point lead that was Alabama's biggest until the final minutes
Tennessee took a 28-24 lead into halftime after McRae made 2 of 3 free throws with one second left. Lacey had missed a free throw on the other end and then fouled McRae on a 3-point shot.
Alabama was just 4-of-21 shooting from inside the 3-point line before the half, including a couple of droughts with at least seven consecutive misses.
Tennessee outrebounded Alabama 40-25 but also committed 16 turnovers to the Tide's seven.
Grant said the Tide missed 10 layups in the first half. The team had struggled to close out games at times this season.
"My message to them more than anything else was, 'At some point, you have to stop taking punches and start throwing some of your own,'" Grant said. "I felt like in the second half as a team, we took a stand."