The Crimson Tide basketball teamed knocked off the #23 Mississippi State Bulldogs early Saturday in Coleman Coliseum. Roll 'Bama Roll reacts with some initial impressions...
Despite such a great defensive performance, we still had to depend on clutch free throw shooting in the closing seconds to hold on to this one. While there were some good things on the offensive end, we are still not a very good offensive team. Alas, that is unlikely to change for the rest of the season, so we're going to have to rely on our defense and rebounding to keep us in games. The difference between this game and our three previous losses probably came down to the simple fact that we hit our wide open 3-pointers when we really needed to, especially in the second half. If we miss those the way we did in the other games, we're probably talking about another close loss right now.
Our rebounding effort was phenomenal. We actually out-rebounded the Bulldogs 49-45 and seemed to come up with a lot of 50-50 rebounds. The effort was teamwide, from the post players to the guards, but special recognition should go to Tony Mitchell and Senario Hillman. Mitchell pulled down 12 rebounds--including 4 offensive boards--in yet another game where he made things happen for Bama all over the floor. He is really picking up his play here down the stretch of his freshman season, and his superior court awareness is starting to combine nicely with his athleticism. If he ever finds his shooting touch in the coming years, look out. Hillman absorbs a lot of criticism from Bama basketball fans, but I think he is an invaluable part of this team. Not only was his 9-rebound performance (for a 6'1" guard) huge, but Hillman was an integral part in helping to pick apart the MSU zone in the second half when the offense was really struggling. Grant placed him in the middle of the zone and he proceeded to successfully get inside several times, and although he missed some good looks from close, he was able to open things up for the whole offense.
As I said earlier, the only thing keeping this from being another close loss was our ability to hit some open 3s. Although he is known more for his driving ability, Mikhail Torrance came up huge in knocking down 4-of-8 shots from the arc. The MSU defense did a pretty good job of keeping him out of the lane, but he still managed to penetrate when given the chance and was nothing short of clutch from the free throw line. Torrance proved once again, with his 20 points, 5 assists, and only 2 turnovers, that the Bama offense starts and ends with him. He stepped up today. Our other two made 3s came from our other senior, Anthony Brock. He's been in a shooting slump for several games now, but he picked a perfect time to finally knock a couple down. Additionally, he was a big, big part of the superb Tide perimeter defensive effort, and Grant even handed him the point guard duty at times when MSU went zone in an attempt to keep the pressure off of Torrance.
JaMychal Green was an absolute beast today. His stats (18 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks) were obviously very good, but not his best ever. What was so impressive about today's performance though was the competition he was going up against. He put up those 18 points and 9 rebounds (including 4 game-changing offensive boards) against one of the greatest interior defenders in the history of college basketball. What's more, he kept his intensity and aggresiveness at high levels throughout the game and never backed down from Varnado and the rest of the Bulldogs. Truly a great performance from Green, and if he plays at that level against our next two opponents, LSU and Auburn, he could explode for huge games.
- First and foremost, this was a huge win. I stopped just short of calling this a "must-win" in the game preview, but suffice to say our postseason hopes would have been all but dead in the water with a 1-4 SEC start. Not only did we get back into the win column, but we did so by beating a very talented and tough Bulldog squad that was previously undefeated in SEC play.
- Before getting into any game specifics, big kudos go out to every single player in an Alabama uniform, from the starters to the walk-ons and injured players on the bench. You know the players had to be extremely frustrated after three straight games of losing a second-half lead. To be honest, I was worried about how they would respond to adversity from this point on, and every single one of them proved my worries unfounded. When Mississippi State went on big runs at the end of the first half and especially in the middle of the second half, I halfway expected the guys to just throw up their hands and say, "here we go again". Instead they responded to both big runs by seemingly turning up the intensity even more and finally finding a way to win a big game late in the second half.
- This may have been the best defensive performance of any Alabama team in the last decade. I know many State fans as well many in the media will just glance at the stat sheet and say, "oh well Mississippi State was just cold." Cold shooting implies you got open shots and just couldn't knock them down. Honestly, other than maybe a half-dozen 3-point attempts (two of which were made), how many open shots did the Bulldogs get? Hardly any. Our guards did exactly what I suggested we needed to do in the game preview, applying tight pressure to MSU's guards on the perimeter, not allowing them space to shoot and instead forcing them to do things out of their comfort zone. The execution on defense in this regard, from all of our guards, was exceptional. We allowed one of the SEC's best sharpshooters, Ravern Johnson, to get off only two 3-point attempts the entire game, and only one of those was a good look. Dee Bost and Barry Stewart got off a combined 11 3-point attempts, but many were rushed and in any case they aren't the shooters that Johnson is.
- Coach Grant and his staff deserve a lot of credit for the transformation they've made in our defensive performance all year, but they especially deserve credit for the defensive performance turned in by the team in this game. First, the game plan put together for State was as spot-on and effective as Tennessee's was against us in our last game. The staff correctly identified that State's biggest weakness is ball handling (save for point guard Dee Bost). To take advantage of this, the Tide pressed the entire game, which was mostly effective due to relentlessly pressuring Bost off the ball to the point of denying him the in-bounds pass. When Bost was not allowed to dribble at defenders, the MSU offense suddenly became very static, which made it much easier for us to close down the 3-point shooters. Also I noticed that our guards did a tremendous job switching on outside screens which prevented Bost from penetrating the lane on halfcourt sets. Finally, the Alabama defenders, both in the paint and on the perimeter, kept up an impressive level of intensity for the entire 40 minutes and executed the coaches' defensive game plan to perfection.
Chris Hines' adjustment to the college game is almost complete, and in fact it appears as though he may have already snagged Justin Knox's starting spot alongside Green in the post. He got his first start today and played 26 minutes to Knox's 11. He only scored 4 points and grabbed 4 rebounds, but he is quicker that Knox, and that paid dividends on defense against a player like Varnado. In fact he led the team in steals on the day with 3. It's good to see competition between the two players and I expect Knox to get more minutes against other teams. With only three post players, there's plenty of minutes to go around for both. Nevertheless, Hines' emergence can only be a good thing for us.
Now 2-3 in the SEC and 3rd in the West standings, hopes lives again in Tuscaloosa. Winless LSU is up next at home on Wednesday. That one is nothing short of a must-win game. Win it though, and we will have successfully crawled our way back to .500, where we can perhaps reassess what it would take to go dancing. Big win today. Roll Tide!