Tide Streak Critical

People have been asking me to quantify the importance of Alabama's three-game winning streak–all by incredibly slender margins–that vaults the Crimson Tide into tomorrow's game at much-improved and dangerous Ole Miss.

The answer: immeasurable. The length of a life-sized Jermareo Davidson growth chart–with his arms raised.

I believe Alabama is going to slide into the NCAA Tournament field for a school-record tying sixth consecutive season by the skin of their teeth, dang happy they pieced together this mid-conference run.

Coach Mark Gottfried just frowns when folks grab up the schedule and get to prognosticating: ``Win, win, loss, win, loss, etc., etc.'' But he knows we all have a tendency to do it.

After Alabama lost its first three SEC road games by an average margin of 24 points, there was a natural urge to chalk up those ``Ls'' for the rest of the road slate. But I–and other colleagues–had an inkling last Wednesday evening in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that circumstances were brewing in Bama's favor.

The built-up frustration of those severe road poundings and the dent that had put in Alabama's collective pride, was a huge motivating factor. Plus the fact LSU was puttering along looking for answers, still short of confidence it could win a tight game, gave the Crimson Tide reason to believe.

Those reasons proved well-founded. Despite leading for less than seven minutes overall–none in the second half until Davidson's free throws with 45 seconds left–Alabama scratched one out.

South Carolina came into Coleman last Saturday a little down on its luck, but the Gamecocks were plucky and feeling frisky from 3-point range. Dave Odom's crew, spearheaded by Bryce Sheldon, connected on 12 3-pointers–for 36 of their 61 points–and led most of the way. Big offensive plays by Mykal Riley, Davidson, Richard Hendrix and Brandon Hollinger and solid team defense for the final 10 minutes did the trick in Alabama's come-from-behind 64-61 win.

Wednesday's game against Mississippi State seemed chock full of good and bad omens.

Alabama's perimeter and transition defense continued to suffer as State built minor leads with the 3-pointer and the fastbreak. Even more disconcerting for the Tide was the Bulldogs' hard-charging rebounding. In what many consider one of the biggest ``effort'' categories, State hustled hard for the caroms and beat Alabama in that department 47-41.

On the positive side, the Crimson Tide got strong contributions from bench players, a combined 23 points from Riley, Demetrius Jemison and Justin Tubbs, both big men contributed double-doubles (17 and 11 from Davidson, 22 and 10 from Hendrix), and Ron Steele notched another game-winning play on his ledger, despite the various leg ailments that have prevented him from playing like an All-America. The Tide also survived a subpar night from Alonzo Gee, who was in foul trouble most of the way. Gee has been a little off his game recently, so part of Alabama's stretch run must involve ways to plug its most athletic player back into a groove.

Most importantly, the Crimson Tide's poise was on full display. In a game full of momentum swings, lead changes and fast action, the end-game karma seemed to be with State, which pulled ahead by five on a Charles Rhodes power move on the baseline with 1:24 left.

Riley had been cold as ice to that point, but he suddenly turned into the Ice Man, calmly stroking a pair of long-range 3-pointers around a Rhodes free throw to forge the tie. An aggressive blocking foul on Hollinger at midcourt with 14 seconds left turned in the Tide's favor when freshman Ben Hansbrough made just the second of his two free throws. At that point, Steele did what a veteran of his stature should. He assessed the defensive set–which included hot-handed Hendrix's critical slide from the right side to the left baseline (drawing Rhodes with him)–and capitalized. State just knew Alabama would go to Hendrix on the left block, but Steele saw a clean alley down the right side of the lane and burned Jamont Gordon off the dribble.

Steele's layup with 6.7 seconds gave State decent time to sink a game-winner, but in scramble mode without a timeout, Gordon gave up the ball at the top of the key to Barry Stewart on the right wing and his 3-pointer was well short. Rhodes grabbed up the air ball and launched before time expired, but Hendrix got a hand on it to seal the 80-79 win.

So, at 5-4 in league play, Alabama has managed to recoup its home loss to Arkansas with the road win at LSU and keep its head fractionally above the melee in the middle of the SEC West standings.

Problem is, a two-game losing streak could send a West club right back into LSU's neighborhood in the division cellar.

Alabama will have to channel the poise it utilized the last three games if it is to stand any chance of winning more than it loses in its next four. This is a most-difficult stretch for Gottfried's team, with road games at Ole Miss, Florida and Tennessee surrounding a lone home game against Kentucky.

Eastern Division teams have mostly plundered the West this year, including a 10-1 record in Eastern arenas, so Alabama is likely be an underdog–in the minds of most, if not on the official Vegas line–in each of its next four contests.

Does that emphasize how important this three-game winning streak was?

Editor's Note: Thomas Murphy is the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register and a contributor to ‘BAMA Magazine and BamaMag.com

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