NASHVILLE – Alabama still has a pulse in the SEC Tourney, but its fans’ blood pressure may need a checkup. The Tide held off fourth seed South Carolina 64-53 behind tough defense and clutch foul shooting to advance to Saturday and the semifinals of the SEC Tourney against Kentucky.
Said Tide Coach Avery Johnson: “I’m really proud of our guys. We’ve had an up and down year, and haven’t been able to put together complete games back to back. Our guys were scrappy and they fought hard.”
Alabama definitely put together back-to-back games in the tournament with Thursday’s romp over Mississippi State followed by the Tide’s second win of the year over the Gamecocks.
Freshman Braxton Key led Bama with 18 points, while junior Riley Norris scored all 12 of his points in the second half. Avery Johnson Jr. narrowly missed double figures with nine. Bola Olaniyan led all rebounders with 10, and Key grabbed seven as the Tide out-boarded Carolina 42-27. That helped Alabama to a 16-6 advantage on second chance points. Those are huge in a defensive game.
“Coach always preaches be smart but aggressive,” said Norris.
Key added, “That’s huge. When we’re rebounding, we’re a very tough team to beat. Offensive rebounds lead to open threes. Defensively, when we limit teams to one shot, we’re one of the better teams in the league on defense.”
“We talked about moving our feet, stop using your hands, and be the aggressor,” Johnson said. “I told the team, we need all five guys on the boards and we need to be ‘plus five’ on the boards.”
Well, “plus 15” worked out quite nicely.
“Alabama deserved to win tonight,” said South Carolina Coach Frank Martin. “They beat us to every loose ball, and destroyed us on the glass.
“That’s who Alabama is. To win a game like this, you’ve got to have some ‘dog’ in you. Today, we were a bunch of little puppies out there.”
The game got off to a plodding start, as Bama held a 2-0 lead heading into the 15:36 media time out of the first half, courtesy of an Ingram drive.
It was, as expected, going to be a defensive game.
By half time, the scoreboard read Alabama 23, South Carolina 22. The first 20 minutes featured four ties and four lead changes. It was quite competitive, as can be the case when two teams meet with similar styles.
Key already had 10 points at intermission.
Things stayed tight in the second half. In fact, the second verse was just like the first. The final 20 minutes also featured four ties and four lead changes.
A rare Olaniyan dunk put Bama (19-13, 12-8 SEC) up 45-39 with 8:18 left. With 5:30 left, a Norris 3-ball had Bama leading 49-45. It was a winnable game, if the defense could hold up.
Then, unable to stand prosperity, a Key turnover led to an “and one” by SEC Player of the Year Syndarius Thornwell, but he missed the free throw. Last time against Bama, he scored 44. Friday, he had 16.
“They denied me a lot on the dribble,” Thornwell said.
Following an offensive board by Donta Hall, Norris hit another three, and the Tide led 52-47 with 4:24 left.
“Confidence,” Norris said. “Coach has a lot of confidence in me, and he wants me to shoot the ball.”
A PJ Dozier trey got the ‘Cocks (22-10, 12-7) within a point, but Key fed Norris for a big layup.
With 68 seconds left, Carolina had three shots at the hoop and then turned it over. Corban Collins was fouled, and nailed both. Down the stretch, the Tide canned nine straight at the line before a late Key miss on the back end. The Tide hit 10-of-12 free shots in the clutch. In crunch time. When it meant everything.
In the second half of a tight game, Bama hit 15-21 at the line, while the Gamecocks connected on but 10-18.
Another defensive stop and foul sent Ingram to the stripe, and the redshirt freshman canned both. It was a trend.
“That’s not bad for our team, if you’ve been following us,” Johnson said.
The Tide and Wildcats square off at noon CST Saturday. The SEC Network will televise the game.
“It’s going to be a tough competion,” Norris said. “Kentucky? What can you say? We’ve just got to keep our concentration and go out and play hard.”
Key added,” We had a great performance today, and we just have to carry that on into tomorrow.”
In regular season play, Kentucky followed South Carolina on the Alabama schedule. After the Tide’s emotional 90-86 four-overtime win over the Gamecocks in Columbia, Bama returned to Tuscaloosa and lost a 67-58 decision to the Wildcats.
Johnson said, “They’re a talented team. We respect then, but we’ve got to play balanced basketball. When I look back at our loss against them, we were lethargic in the first half and went 9-for-26 at the free throw line. We’ve got to play a whole game against them. Hopefully, we’re a team that’s trying to put something together this time of the year.”