"We haven't felt good in a long time, so we needed this win," Tide Head Coach Mark Gottfried said afterwards. "I'm pleased not just with the win, but for how we played. I'm proud of my team for how they worked this past week. They approached practice with a great deal of concentration. Hopefully this win can carry us and give us some momentum."
In talking to the media after the game, sophomore guard Mo Williams was blunt in pointing out the game's importance. "We've got to play like our life is on the line--which it is."
Alabama's record now stands at 14-7 overall, but only 4-6 in the SEC. Auburn drops to 17-6, 6-4 in league play. The Tide returns to action next Tuesday night, when the 20th ranked (AP) Georgia Bulldogs travel to Tuscaloosa. The game will tip-off at 8 pm (CST) with ESPN providing coverage.
Gottfried juggled his lineup Saturday, starting freshman Kennedy Winston and junior Antoine Pettway along with regular starters Williams, Erwin Dudley and Kenny Walker. "We played more with a smaller lineup," Gottfried explained. "I thought we moved the basketball really well. With better spacing, it helps prevent teams from doubling Erwin as easily."
"I think Kennedy and Antoine added more dribble penetration to our offense," Williams said. "All season our poor shooting has been contagious, so it's only fair that good shooting was contagious tonight. We wanted to not be tentative, but to play aggressive. Making the extra passes made the shots a lot easier."
Pettway hit a three-pointer early on, but Walker did most of the damage at the start, playing aggressive around the basket. In recent games the Tide had routinely fallen behind early, but after five minutes Saturday Gottfried's squad was up 10-2. "We had forgotten what it feels like to play from ahead," he admitted. "We can feel good about how we played tonight. And we needed to feel good."
"We worked hard in practice this week," Dudley said. "We wanted to come out and get off to a good start. We wanted to regain our offensive confidence at home."
Alabama consistently led by 10-12 points for most of the first stanza, but a 6-0 run in the final two minutes had them up by 18 at the half. Auburn Head Coach Cliff Ellis complimented the Tide's performance. "You've got to give credit to Alabama," he said. "The bottom line is they shot the ball better than we did tonight."
Bama continued its aggressive play in the second half, pushing its lead to 25 points at the 8:31 mark. But Auburn responded with full-court pressure that proved tough for the Tide to handle.
Defense and timely three-point shooting got the Tigers back in the game. A 16-5 run over the next four minutes allowed Auburn to close within 11 points. "We tried to come back," Ellis said. "I thought we did a good job with our effort. We hit three three-pointers, and those were key baskets."
Gottfried admitted his team did not handle the defensive pressure well. "When Auburn went to the press, I would have liked us to attack it more," he said. "I thought we got too conservative. But the final outcome is what's important."
Bama's 84 points marked the highest point total in league play for the Tide this season. Five Alabama players scored in double figures, including Dudley (20), Williams (17), Winston (15), Walker (13) and Earnest Shelton with 11. The Tide shot 52.7 percent for the game, 36.8 percent from behind the three-point arc. "It took us 20 games to get to 50 percent," Gottfried said. "Hopefully we can do it again. We had as good an offensive flow as we've had recently."
Dudley and Winston both had 10 rebounds for the Tide. Double-doubles are nothing new for last year's SEC Player of the Year, but Saturday's effort was a collegiate first for Winston. The true freshman also had six assists, two steals and a blocked shot. "So far this season, I think tonight was the best game I've played," Winston acknowledged.
The Tide outrebounded Auburn, 40-33, and also led in assists, 15-8. Both teams committed 13 turnovers.
The Tide must win four of its remaining six games to finish up at .500 in the SEC, which will be crucial to a possible NCAA Tournament bid. "It'll be a quick turnaround for us, playing Georgia this Tuesday," Gottfried said. "They're an excellent basketball team, but tonight was an important first step in the right direction."