Alabama came from behind in the final moments at home for a 64-61 win over South Carolina, the last place team in the SEC Eastern Division, to even Bama's SEC mark at 4-4. With Auburn losing 82-59 to Ole Miss, that gave the Crimson Tide a half game lead over Auburn and Mississippi, who are now at 4-5.
Alabama, ranked 20th in the nation in the Associated Press poll and 19th in the Coaches poll, picked up two wins during the week with a victory at LSU and the home triumph over South Carolina. Bama is now 17-5 overall.
Alabama trailed much of Saturday against the Gamecocks, including being behind by a 32-26 margin at halftime. Bama was still down by six points inside the 10-minute mark, but took the lead at 51-50 on an unusual five-point trip. The Tide took the lead for good inside the four minute mark on a three-point shot by Mykal Riley, then held on down the stretch with Alabama's biggest lead five points with eight seconds to play.
Momentum changed with just over seven minutes to play. South Carolina had a dour-point lead and the basketball and seemed to be in control. Brandon Hollinger, whose job was to harass the Gamecocks' fine point guard, Tre Kelley, forced a turnover by Kelley and got the ball ahead to Riley, who made a nice move to the basket for a layup. He was fouled on the play. Riley missed the free throw, but Bama rebounded and was fouled. On the ensuing inbounds play, Hollinger hit his only basket of the game, a three-pointer from the corner that gave Alabama a 51-50 lead.
South Carolina would regain the lead a couple of times, but down the stretch it was Alabama making the defensive plays and enough scores to escape with the win.
Richard Hendrix had two key short shots down the stretch and Riley scored 14 of his 15 points in the second half. Riley had three three-point baskets in the second half. Hendrix had 14 points and 15 rebounds, including nine offensive boards as Alabama won the rebounding battle, 35-27.
Alonzo Gee had 12 points for the Tide.
Jermareo Davidson, who had 31 points in the Tide's win at LSU in Baton Rouge Wednesday, went scoreless until making a pair of free throws with just under 15 minutes to play in the game. Davidson had nine points as he made only two of 11 field goal tries.
Davidson was good on five of six free throws, and it was the foul line that proved the difference for Bama. Alabama made 13 of 17 foul shots while the visiting Gamecocks had only two free throw opportunities, making one of them.
South Carolina has not been a good three-point shooting team, but with a handful of wide open chances, the Gamecocks connected on 12 of 26 treys. Bama made only five of 17. Alabama shot only 41.8 per cent from the field (23-55), while South Carolina made 24-52 for 46.2 per cent.
Alabama outscored South Carolina by 28-20 in the paint. Bama had 16 second chance points to 11 for the Gamecocks. Although turnovers were nearly even, South Carolina with 16 and Alabama with 13, the Tide got 19 points off South Carolina miscues, while the Gamecocks got only six points off Bama's errors.
After the game Hollinger said, "I was surprised to hear we are in first place in the SEC West because we have been down in SEC play. But I hope at the end of the year we're in first place in the SEC West and then win the SEC Tournament."
Alabama will host Mississippi State at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Riley said, "We've got two wins and this is an opportunity to get on a roll."
Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried called the game a "grind it out, slug it out, find a way to win it kind of game. You're going to have those in this league."
Gottfried cited good team defense, the work on Hendrix on the boards, and the clutch shots of Riley in the second half as keys to the win.
The Bama coach downplayed the move into first place in the SEC Western Division. "I don't think it matters right now," he said. "The league is so balanced. There's not a gap in the teams. Where we are right now is irrelevant."