"Alabama showed why they were the SEC regular season champs," said South Carolina center Tony Kitchings, who led his team with 16 points and 11 rebounds. "They made big plays. Kenny Walker is their unsung hero. He came out and torched us for 21. They did everything they needed to do to win even after we made a comeback."
Walker's 21 led all scorers, with Terrance Meade adding 15 and Erwin Dudley 10. Rod Grizzard was hed to seven points after dropping 33 on Tennessee the previous day, but he led Tide rebounders with 11.
Were the Gamecocks leg-weary while playing for the third time in 42 hours?
"In my opininon, no," said Carolina coach Dave Odom. "I thought our team played extremely hard with a lot of energy right to the very end. Would we have liked to have had a little more rest? Yes, no question. Whatever fatigue we might have had, I thought we played past it. We played an exceptional basketball team an exceptional basketball game today."
A Georgia Dome crowd of 19,127 saw a gritty South Carolina basketball team give Alabama all it wanted and then some.
"Our game plan was to get the game into the 80's and 90's, because that's what we're best at," said Meade. "They're a good defensive team. When it came down to it, we got the job done in the last two minutes. I think that shows our maturity."
For the second straight day, the Tide's offensive arsenal featured a first half four-point play.
On Friday, Grizzard did the honors when he stroked a 25-footer and was fouled by Tennessee's Marcus Haislip, converting the free throw in UA's semifinal win over the Vols. Saturday, the combination of Erwin Dudley and Terrance Meade pulled it off. Dudley drove for a layin seconds before intermission, and made it. Meanwhile, Meade was pushed out of bounds , and with the Tide in the double bonus he dropped in both free throws to stake UA to a 38-28 lead at the break.
Meade shook off a long shooting slump to sink three treys before intermission for 11 first half points. Kenny Walker also had 11 in the half. Freshman reserve Carlos Powell had nine for USC in the first.
The Tide had a five-point possession in the second half. Meade was fouled on a three-point attempt, and made the first two free throws. After missing the third, he got rebound to start another sequence that ended with a Rod Grizzard three pointer that had Bama ahead, 47-39 with 13:30 to go.
The Gamecocks fought back to tie the score at 57 on an Aaron Lucas three-pointer with 1:12 left. After a Dudley miss from the lane, USC called timeout with :37 left to set up a play. Following on a no-whistle collision with Mo Williams, USC's Chuck Eidson lost the ball, Rod Grizzard recovered it,and fed Antoine Pettway with a long pass. Pettway's layup spun off, but Walker was there to slam home the rebound, drawing a foul from Rolando Howell. With 26.3 ticks remaining, Walker made the free throw to give UA a three-point lead.
"I was up under the (defensive) basket," said Walker of the sequence of events that turned the Tide. "I looked over and I saw Chuck Eidson trip up. I saw Rod (Grizzard) get the ball and I saw Pettway break out. Coach tells us a basket's not guaranteed when the man is by himself, so my thing was just to run up afer him. I saw that Pettway missed the basket, and had good timing."
On the Gamecock's ensuing possession, Powell then tried a three which spun out, and Walker rebounded, drawing a foul from Tony Kitchings in the process. Walker sank the second of two, and UA led 61-57 with 23 seconds left. Dudley rebounded an airball and hit a pair of free throws. Walker followed a Williams miss at the buzzer, and UA had the win and its frist trip to the SEC Tourney finals since 1992, the final year of the Wimp Sanderson era.
"Weve had a great season," said Meade of his team's desire to win the SEC Tourney to go along with its regular season conference crown. "Of course, you want to win out. That could help us with our seeding in the NCAA Tournament."
Gottfired said the Alabama team (26-6) would go to eat following Sunday's noon central time title game, then watch the NCAA selection show in Atlanta before returning home. At 18-14, Carolina will hope for an NCAA bid but likely hear instead from the NIT Selection Committee.