The Crimson Tide basketball team had Coleman Coliseum rocking down the stretch as they mounted a furious rally in game's final 12 minutes to take a 69-56 win over the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday night. The win clinched 1st place in the SEC West for the Tide with 4 games still remaining in the SEC season.
Arkansas held a 5-point lead as late as the 11:58 mark of the game, but from that point on the Tide closed the game with a 25-7 run to emphatically close out its 14th win in 14 games at Coleman Coliseum this season. Bama now improves to 18-8 on the season overall, 10-2 in SEC play.
Throughout the first 28 minutes of the game, Arkansas was doing exactly what they needed to do to pick up the road win against Alabama: Rotnei Clarke was on fire and on pace for huge scoring numbers, and the Hogs were managing to not only keep up with the Tide on the boards but actually were outrebounding them. Fortunately, Clarke was held to only 2 points over the last 12 minutes, and Bama finally started to outrebound the Hogs on both ends of the floor.
Not surprisingly, it was the Bama defense that was the difference in the game. Despite allowing a few too many open 3-point attempts in the first half, the Tide held Arkansas to only 39% shooting from the floor for the game. The biggest stat of the game, though, was the 11 steals generated by Bama's defense, which helped lead to 18 Arkansas turnovers. For the game, Bama outscored Arkansas 25-5 in points off turnovers. It's hard to argue that the Tide defense's ability to create turnovers and subsequent fastbreak opportunities wasn't the biggest reason Bama was able to escape with its 14th straight home win.
Another big factor that deserves mentioning however was the home court advantage Bama enjoyed on Saturday night. For the fourth time in six SEC games, Coleman Coliseum was at capacity with over 15,000 fans, and it was clear that the crowd fed and ultimately lifted the players to the strong finish that they needed to finish off the game.
Tony Mitchell, who has been playing at 1st-team All-SEC level for the last several games, played at SEC Player of the Year level last night. He set a career high with 27 points on a phenomenal 11-of-15 shooting performance, and added 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. Mitchell looked like he was playing on a different level athletically than the other players on the court. Mitchell's emergence as a full-on star is one of the biggest reason's for Bama's magical run through SEC play this season.
Bama's other two star players also rose to the occasion to help keep the Tide's SEC and NCAA dreams alive. JaMychal Green scored 16 points and added 9 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks. He had trouble posting up the Razorback defenders and scoring in halfcourt offensive sets, but he still found ways to make things happen on defense and in transition. Trevor Releford contributed 17 points, 4 assists and 2 steals. Both Releford and Green shot 7-of-14 from the field. Much like Mitchell, Releford and Green have consistently stepped up to higher and higher levels as the year has gone on. No team can compete for an SEC championship without at some players competing for All-SEC honors, and we're getting that out of these three guys.
Bama's other two starters both contributed over 30 minutes on the court, and both played a huge role in the team's defensive success. Chris Hines scored 6 points, grabbed 5 rebounds, and added 3 steals, 2 assists and 2 blocks. He also helped to shut down Arkansas's scorers in the post, particularly second-leading scorer Marshawn Powell. Charvez Davis only scored 3 points after going 0-for-7 upon hitting a trey on his first shot attempt. However, Davis stayed in the game and spent virtually the entire second half chasing down Rotnei Clarke on the defensive end, where he was able to limit him to only one made shot the entire second half.
Yet again Andrew Steele was the team's sixth man, and he played a majority of the game's minutes, but he failed to score. Senario Hillman played a season-low 8 minutes, which makes you wonder where his minutes are going, since this continues a trend in recent games of his minutes declining more and more. Ben Eblen also played 7 minutes in relief of Releford, and like all three of the Tide's bench players, he failed to score.
The win keeps Bama in the discussion for an NCAA at-large spot, something we'll examine a little closer on Tuesday. It also keeps Bama tied for the lead in the SEC Championship race with the Florida Gators, who won today at LSU to keep pace at 10-2. The win Saturday keeps both of Bama's big dreams alive and well heading into the final two weeks of the regular season. First up this week will be the Auburn Tigers, who will visit Tuscaloosa on Wednesday night. With 1st in the West now clinched, now is not the time to rest. Like the LSU game last week, the Auburn game is another lose-lose "instant death" game that would end Bama's hopes dead on the spot. We'll need to continue keeping our focus, and we'll need the fans to continue to pack out Coleman as we chase an SEC Championship over the next two weeks.