"It was a really good college basketball game," said Tide Head Coach Mark Gottfried. "We had to struggle to win, but we did. It was nice to win the title outright at home in front of our fans. In the last few minutes, I knew that if it came down to free throw shooting, then we were in pretty good shape."
Alabama took an early 12-point lead in the first half, but could never seem to push it further out. Ice-cold three-point shooting was the main culprit. The Tide shot only 19 percent from behind the arc, with the normally reliable Earnest Shelton going 0-for-5. "We did not play offensively very well," Gottfried said. "I give Auburn credit for playing hard, but you can't give them credit for our missing wide open shots. We got wide-open looks, but we just had one of those nights. We couldn't make our shots to let us extend the lead."
With its win over Florida the previous Saturday, Alabama had already earned a share of the SEC title. While Auburn entered the game having won only four conference games on the season. "You've seen two battles this year," said Auburn Head Coach Cliff Ellis. "It's been a war. You saw an Auburn team put it on the line tonight, and that's all I can ask for."
Before Wednesday's game, Auburn was the only SEC squad that Alabama had not beaten. In an earlier game played in Auburn, the Tigers took a 59-56 win over the Tide. And while Ellis began his post-game comments by denying any satisfaction with a moral victory, his next statement seemed to belie that notion. "We had a chance to sweep the series, and we still got a split," he said. "We're right where Alabama was a couple of years ago with a young team."
Kenny Walker, Alabama' starting center did not play in the first half, sitting out a suspension for an academic-related problem. Walker did play in the second stanza, contributing 12 points and four rebounds. But Erwin Dudley was the difference in the game.
The SEC Player of the Year candidate led all scorers with 25 points and added 13 rebounds for his fourteenth double-double of the year. Led by point guard Mo Williams, Alabama fed Dudley the ball all game. "During one timeout a coach showed me his stats," Williams said. "At that point he was 9-of-13, and I said, ‘Hey! We've got to get this guy the ball.' Erwin opens up our offense for the other guards."
Dudley finished up 10-of-17 shooting, including 5-of-8 from the free-throw line. "I was asking for the ball," Dudley said. "I put it in my head that they couldn't guard me. So I just took it to them."
"Dudley just keeps getting better and better," Gottfried said. "Erwin put this team on his back. He was just fantastic. There's a saying that you need to be at your best when your best is needed, and he is. We obviously wouldn't be where we are today without him. I think he deserves to be the SEC Player of the Year, and I hope he gets it."
"He's a major player," said Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis of Alabama's big man. "There's one stat (tonight) that stands out, and that's No. 35. He was the major difference in this game."
Mo Williams, in the running for SEC Freshman of the Year, seems to be the missing piece of the puzzle for the Tide. He scored 15 points, including a perfect four-of-four from the foul line, and had six boards while dishing out three assists.
After Dudley and Williams, Antoine Pettway added 12 points for Bama, Rod Grizzard four, Demetrius Smith three, and Reggie Rambo two. Auburn was led by Adam Harrington with 16 points. Tiger forward Marquis Daniels added 14.
With the win Alabama finishes up a perfect 17-0 at home, marking the fifth time in team history that has been accomplished. Bama's last perfect team at home was the 1989 squad, that finished up 14-0.
The last time Alabama won the SEC regular season title was 1987, with a team that happened to feature a guard named Mark Gottfried. "I did have a flashback to that year when I was cutting down the net," Gottfried said. "Tonight was very special. Not a lot of guys get the chance to coach at their alma mater. Alabama to me is just a very, very special place."
Auburn actually out-rebounded Alabama 47 to 35. Each team shot 39.3 percent from the field, but Alabama had a decided 84-to-68 percent edge in free-throw shooting.
Next Sunday Alabama travels to Ole Miss to finish up its conference slate, a game that will be televised by CBS. But tonight's win clinched the SEC title. "The championship is very special," Grizzard said. "It's something we have that nobody can take away. We put another notch in that banner."
"We think the SEC is the best conference in America," Pettway added. "We prayed for it, and we went out and got it. All our hard work paid off. We came in with the mindset that we wanted the championship outright.
"Now it's important that we don't think we've accomplished anything. We've got to play the SEC tournament and then the NCAAs with this same intensity. And that starts Saturday with Ole Miss."
Gottfried acknowledged that he was worried that his team might take Auburn lightly, after clinching a share of the title last Saturday. "I had at least 15 people tell me that they expected a blow-out," he said. "And our players hear that. Auburn was not going to lay down for us.
"But the good news for our team is that we're winning even though we're still not playing our best basketball."
It was senior night at Alabama and the Tide honored Solomon Davis, a forward from Mobile, Ala. Davis came to Alabama as a walk-on in 1998. After leaving the team prior to the 2000-01 season to concentrate on academics, Davis received a scholarship and came back to play for the Tide this season. He had only played in three minutes of SEC action coming into tonight's game but checked in during the final minute of play and got a rousing ovation from the crowd.
Following Sunday's game at Ole Miss, the Tide will be the Western Division No. 1 Seed in the SEC Tournament in Atlanta March 7-10. They will have a bye on Thursday, and will start play on Friday.