Practice Pays Off

A part of practice is work on special situations, and 15 or 20 minutes of such preparation Tuesday paid big dividends in Alabama's 77-74 overtime win over Vanderbilt at Coleman Coliseum Wednesday night. Bama had to go the length of the court in 2.3 seconds to escape a home court loss and the play the Crimson Tide had practiced the day before worked to perfection.

For Jean Felix, it was a miserable shooting night. Nevertheless, the Alabama senior doesn't shy away from a shot even when he's ice cold. And the 10th time was the charm for Felix with 8.3 seconds remaining in regulation. After missing his first nine three-point shots of the game, he nailed what would be his only basket in 14 tries. He made a three-pointer to give Alabama a 66-65 lead.

But Felix's most heroic moment was to come. Alabama probably misplayed the next few seconds, allowing a red-hot Shan Foster to get off a three-point shot with less than three seconds to play. Bama had fouls to give and could have made Vandy throw in one or two more times in those final seconds. Foster, who would hit six-of-13 treys on the night and have 30 points, was good on that shot to give the Commodores a 68-66 lead with 2.3 seconds to play.

And that's where Tuesday practice paid off. After the game Bama Coach Mark Gottfried would say that in practice they had discovered that Felix was the only player on the team who could make an accurate length-of-court pass. Bama had set up with freshman Richard Hendrix deep to catch the pass, Gottfried explaining because Hendrix has strong hands and can catch and control the ball. That part of the play was executed and then turned into a game-tying basket at the buzzer. "It was freshman-to-freshman," Gottfried noted as Hendrix whipped the ball to Alonzo Gee, who was cutting for the basket and slammed home the tying goal and send the game to overtime.

In overtime, it was primarily the old reliables, Jermareo Davidson and Ron Steele. Davidson had a key three-point play, one of those "Oh-no-way-to-go!" jobs where he hit an 18-footer and was fouled, then made the free throw to give Bama a 73-71 lead with 3:09 to play. The Tide would not trail again.

Steele hasn't missed a free throw in five games. He has now made 38 of 40 in Southeastern Conference games, 95 per cent, and 66 of 73 for the season, 90 per cent. And he made six-of-six against Vanderbilt, four of them in overtime. His last two came with 9.7 seconds to play and gave the Tide a three-point lead at what would be the final score, 77-74.

Those last free throw opportunities came because of a heads-up play by Alabama. A jump shot was missed, but Hendrix scrambled to get the rebound and a timeout was called with just over 11 seconds to play. After the in-bounds the Commodores were quick to foul, but by then the ball was in the hands of Steele.

Vanderbilt's Foster was fouled and had a one-and-one opportunity with 2.3 seconds to play. He missed, but the ball was tipped out to Dan Cage behind the three-point line. Cage, the brother of Bama walk-on Greg Cage, had made three-of-five treys, but was off the mark with that last chance and Bama had victory.

There has been conjecture that Alabama and Vanderbilt may have been playing for the final spot in the NCAA Tournament that will go to an SEC team. That type of conjecture is probably premature, but it was an important Tide win nevertheless.

Alabama continues in second place in the SEC Western Division as the Crimson Tide improved to 13-8 overall and 6-3 in SEC games. Vanderbilt fell to 12-8 overall and 3-6 in the conference.

It was the second overtime game for both teams. Earlier this year, on the same day, Alabama defeated Arkansas in overtime while the Commodores fell to South Carolina in overtime.

Alabama will try to avenge a homecourt loss on the road Saturday. Bama goes to Ole Miss for a 2 p.m. CST game. Alabama continues on the road February 14 at South Carolina. The Tide returns home February 18 to take on the best team in the conference, Tennessee.

Steele had 22 points and Davidson, who was 7-7 on free throws, 21. Gee was also in double figures with 17. Bama had a 42-31 rebounding advantage with Hendrix, who had eight points, getting 12 rebounds and Davidson grabbing 10. Vanderbilt did not have a second chance basket in the game while Alabama scored 18 points on second chance. The Tide had 34 points in the paint, Vandy 24–most of the Commodores' close-in points coming on back-door plays.

Alabama had a defensive quandry much of the night. The Tide used a zone as much as possible to prevent the backdoors, but had to go to man-to-man defense when the Commodores' Foster started raining threes over the zone.

Vanderbilt scored 10 more points than Alabama from the field. The Commodores hit one more field goal (28-64, 43.8 per cent) and the Commodores had 13-29 three-pointers (44.8 per cent). Alabama was 27-61 (44.3 per cent), but only 5-23 (21.7 per cent) on treys.

As is often the case in Alabama strategy, Bama won the game at the free throw line. Bama was 18-19 on foul shots (94.7 per cent) and Vandy 5-9 (55.6 per cent). This was despite the fact that Vanderbilt had only four more fouls than Bama, 17-13.

The win broke a four-game losing streak for Alabama against the Commodores.

Gottfried said, "I'm excited. We were fortunate to win. The unfortunate thing is that a group of coaches and players has to leave a game like that with a loss. Foster was outrageously good. He made shot after shot.

"I'm so proud of our guys. Seven guys on scholarship. Super. We have a group of guys who are a pleasure to coach. They have an unbelievable attitude. They make you think we have a chance."

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