Alabama came from a first half deficit to record a 71-61 win over Auburn to sweep the series against the Tigers for the third straight year. Bama has now won seven in a row against its cross-state rival and improved the Crimson Tide's all-time mark to 83-50. The Tide has a 40-7 advantage in games played in Tuscaloosa.
Important to Alabama, which improved to 17-10 on the year and 10-5 in SEC games, is that the Tide clinched second place in the SEC Western Division. The top two teams in each division get a bye in the first round of the SEC Tournament, meaning Alabama will not play on the first day of the tournament in Nashville next Thursday. Arkansas could still tie Alabama for second behind LSU, but Bama has the tie-breaker advantage for the SEC Tournament bye.
Auburn fell to 12-14 overall and 4-11 in league games.
Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried said the bye is important to give his team an extra day of rest and also to impress the NCAA Selection Committee, which will announce the 65-team national championship tournament field on March 12.
Alabama completes regular season play Saturday at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs will be battling to stay out of the SEC Western Division cellar. State, a league powerhouse in recent years, is only 4-11 in the league and 14-14 overall. The game, which will not be telecast, will tip off at 4 p.m. CST Saturday. Alabama struggled to a 65-59 win over the Bulldogs in Tuscaloosa earlier this year.
There is no doubt that Gottfried should be a strong contender for SEC Coach of the Year. Since Bama lost its best player, senior Chuck Davis, to a season-ending knee injury in the first game of conference play, Bama has won 10 of 14 games.
Davis was in street clothes Wednesday night, but his uniform was on the floor. Fellow senior Evan Brock wore Davis' number 1 jersey in honor of his teammate and also dedicated the game to Davis. Brock and Jean Felix played their final games in Tuscaloosa.
By the way, it was the throwback uniform that Bama has continued to wear beyond SEC Throwback Week and will continue to wear as long as the winning goes on. Gottfried's teamj has won games against Tennessee, Florida and Auburn wearing the uniforms patterened from the 1970s, and the Tide coach said the players had voted to keep wearing them.
The game was not well-played, but compared to the officiating it was worthy of a Final Four performance. An extraordinary call, in which Alabama had a basket taken away and an offensive fould charged to Jermareo Davidson, earned the official a hard stare–but no words or gestures–from Gottfried. The official seemed to be intimidated by Gottfried's evil eye and countered with a cowardly technical foul on the Tide coach.
Instead of Alabama being down by four points, with the Tide basket wiped out and Auburn allowed to shoot two free throws, the lead went out to eight. And then the Tigers hit a three-pointer on the possession that went with the technical and had an 11-point lead, 26-15, with 3:35 to play in the first half.
Alabama players said they thought the technical foul motivated the players and the crowd (13,345). "I thought it was a good move by Coach," said Ron Steele.
Auburn hit an unlikely trey just before the halftime buzzer and had a five-point lead, 31-26.
Gottfried said the halftime talk was about defense. And, the coach said, "I thought we came out and guarded them very well for 12-15 minutes." In that time Alabama played with a slightly smaller line-up, using only one of its two post players – Davidson or Richard Hendrix - at a time. Both Gottfried and Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo thought that was a key move in Bama shutting down the Tigers, who play with four guards and a forward.
Through the first 17 minutes of the second half, Auburn scored only 16 points and Bama had built a 14-point lead.
Although it was senior night, it was freshman Alonzo Gee who hurt Auburn the most. Gee, who had been Bama's leading scorer with 17 points in a 56-52 win at Auburn earlier this year, connected on 8-12 field goals and finished with a game high 21 points. Davidson did not have a smooth game, hitting 3-7 from the field and 8-12 free throws for 14 points and pulling down six rebounds. Felix had 13 points, including punctuating the win with a reverse slam, a shot he had missed in the final moments of Bama's win over Florida last week.
Freshman Richard Hendrix was also only 3-7 and finished with six points, but last week's SEC Freshman of the Week had a game-high 10 rebounds as Bama had a 43-37 advantage on the boards.
Steele, who has made a push for SEC Player of the Year in recent weeks, was held in check by Auburn's 1-3-1 defense. He was scoreless at intermission and finished with only nine points. He was only 2-9 from the field and was 0-4 from three-point range. But it was his driving layup that gave Alabama the lead for good at 35-34 with just over three minutes gone in the second half.
Alabama shot 60 per cent from the field in the second half to finish at 49 per cent. Bama held Auburn to 33 per cent shooting in the second half and 37 per cent for the game.
Alabama had an uncharacteristically poor free throw shooting night, hitting only 18 of 32, 56 per cent. Bama also handled the ball poorly with 16 turnovers.