Crimson Tide guard Justin Coleman stuck a huge trey at 1:10 of overtime for a lead and added free throws with nine ticks left for enough margin in an 82-80 victory at Mississippi State.
“I feel this is a game we should have won,” Bulldog guard Fred Thomas said.
Certainly State could have won, and in regulation at that. Guard Craig Sword was on the free throw line at 0:08 with a 1-and-1 to break a 67-67 tie. The senior missed his first chance and by the time the loose ball ended up out of bounds time had expired.
It was the respite Alabama needed. While Mississippi State managed to lead most of the extra period, the Tide backcourt kept it in striking distance. After Bulldog center Gavin Ware scored the last of his career-high 28 points at 1:34 for a 76-76 tie Coleman was left open out top.
Each side missed their next chances, giving the Bulldogs a chance to tie with a trey in the late seconds. Thomas did get the ball in the left corner…and drove for an uncontested layup Alabama conceded without risking a foul.
“We just needed a bucket,” Thomas said, explaining his choice. “There was obviously a lot of time left.” His coach saw things otherwise.
“I thought Fred should have taken the three, down three,” Coach Ben Howland said. “Probably better to attempt the three with that little time left.” Regardless, Alabama got the ball inbounds to Riley Norris to make one free throw at 1.1 seconds.
The Crimson Tide left 12-9 and 3-6 SEC. State is 9-12 and 2-7, next-to-last in the league standings. With cellar-dweller Missouri not participating in the SEC Tournament this year, odds are increasing MSU and Alabama could rematch in Nashville.
In post-game Tide Coach Avery Johnson said he was concerned about getting back to Tuscaloosa due to evening weather. But if his team must stay overnight in Starkville, they’ll rest easier after another tight victory. “Overtimes have been pretty good to us,” Johnson said.
Mississippi State wasn’t sure the regular roster would be available for this matchup. Ware had missed the Missouri win with a concussion and was not cleared until earlier Tuesday. The big Dog didn’t look like someone who had not practiced for this game, making 12 of 16 shots coming off the bench.
“I made sure I slowed down, was in the right position, and sealed in the post,” Ware said. Not all were low-post shots though as Ware stuck some nifty jumpers that kept Alabama’s interior defense guessing.
State’s problem was having only one Ware. Or one reliable scorer period.
“You throw Gavin out of the lineup and we’re 21 of 65 from the field,” Howland said. Forward Travis Daniels had a good first half and finished with 11 points and seven rebounds, while Thomas had ten points though going 1-of-6 at the arc.
What was missing was the production Howland had come to rely on from freshman guards Quindarry Weatherspoon and Malik Newman. The pair were a combined 3-of-13 from the floor, and Newman in particular struggled against Alabama’s perimeter defense. Point guard IJ Ready did not start with a still-sore foot but once in the game rarely came out, playing 35 minutes.
Obasohan led Alabama with 25 points. “He’s been playing like Superman for us,” Johnson said. Norris had 16 and Coleman 15. The Tide offense came in having taken 43% of their season shots at the arc; this night it was an even 50%, 29 out of 58 attempts. They made eleven of them against both zone and man defensive looks.
Alabama led the entire first half, as the Bulldogs struggled to run their offense, and were up as much as 51-42 in the second period. Only Ware kept his team competitive and he was dealing with fouls, picking up a third personal less three minutes into the second half. The fourth was at 10:51.
But it was State cranking up the perimeter pressure at the same time the Tide went cold from the arc. The Bulldogs kept scratching and somehow managed a 11-0 run with Thomas hitting from the corner for the first lead of the evening, 53-51.
By 5:03 it was a 64-57 lead, with Obasohan missing a long shot. But the rebound ended up in Riley’s hands and he didn’t hesitate to fire from out top. That three-pointer was a turning point to Howland.
“We’ve got to be better when we have a lead. Five-sometihg to go we have a seven-point lead, we have to handle it better. And not allow second shots.”
State didn’t score again until Ware made one free throw at 2:07 and by then Alabama had caught up. Obasohan tied it 67-67 at 1:03, and nobody scored again in regulation. Sword, who missed a very long three for the lead, seemed to have saved the evening when he took a gutsy charge from Obasohan, at 10.1 seconds. Alabama lost track of the foul count and fouled Sword at 7.8 for the 1-and-1 opportunity. Which was missed.
Howland was more frustrated over the way the offense had been run, or not-run, at both the end of regulation and overtime. “But we have to make our foul shots and I feel bad for Chicken, he feels worse than anybody.” Because besides double-digit points Sword had six assists, seven rebounds and a couple of steals.
Alabama left having won a six-straight game in the rivalry, and with the first three-win streak ever at Humphrey Coliseum. “Fortunately they missed some free throws, and we were pretty good in overtime,” said Johnson, like Howland a first-year conference coach.
A senior Dog had not much good to say for the outcome. “I feel this is a game we should have won,” Thomas said.