The Crimson Tide basketball team went into a hostile environment facing a team that viewed the contest as their biggest game of the season. Bama didn't play well at all offensively, which made for a very ugly game, but the result nevertheless was picture perfect: Bama picked up a 68-58 win, keeping Auburn's perfect 0-5 SEC record alive. Bama meanwhile moved into a first-place tie in the SEC standings with Florida, and the rare sell-out crowd went home silently before Bama even cracked 60 points.
Bama's offense was so shaky, and its shooting so poor, that had the Tide faced literally any SEC team on the road last night other than Auburn, defeat would have been near certain. In fact, the game went exactly as Bama fans feared it would--and Auburn coaches hoped that it would. Auburn used the same strategy they used against Florida earlier in the week: packing in the defense, inviting the opponent to take wide open 3's all day, and then praying they would have a cold shooting night. The strategy worked against Florida (5 of 26 from the arc), and it worked against Bama (4 of 20 from the arc). Auburn got exactly what it wanted in both games: an ugly, low-scoring affair that gave them a real chance to keep it close and steal an upset.
Fortunately for Bama, Auburn couldn't make good on that chance. The game was low-scoring and ugly enough that you felt the whole time, right up until the final minute's foul-fest, that if Auburn could just hit one or two big shots and just put one little run together, that it might be enough. It probably would have, too, but fortunately, Bama's defense was just good enough, and Auburn's offense was just bad enough, to keep that from happening. Despite Bama's pitiful offensive performance, big credit, once again, must go to the defense. We keep saying it over and over, but it keeps deciding games for us over and over, so it's warranted: Bama's top-10 defense allows us to stay in games where our lackluster offense otherwise wouldn't. That was the case yet again last night.
On the positive side for Bama, free throw shooting was nothing short of clutch. The Tide went 24-of-30 from the stripe on the night, including a sharp 14-of-16 in the game's final two minutes that effectively put away what was an otherwise close game. Another big positive coming out of this for Bama was the team's focus and mental toughness down the stretch. Before the game I called this Auburn's "Super Bowl" and Coach Grant told his players to prepare to walk into "a hornet's nest" of emotion. This game had "letdown" and "trap game" written all over it, and when Bama's ice-cold shooting kept Auburn in it late in the game, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't terrified that we were going to lose our focus just enough to give Auburn that one run they needed. To the staff and players' credit, though, that never happened, and for the first time in Anthony Grant's young tenure here, this is finally looking like a team that isn't just good enough to be in every game late, but that actually believes it can win every game, even in tough environments, and even on nights when they aren't playing well.
There weren't a lot of great individual highlights in this one, but the announcers made a great point about Tony Mitchell: he is our most consistent scorer this year, hitting double-figures in every game but one. It's almost a guarantee that every single game he will score very near 15 points, will grab 6-12 rebounds, and will add in 3-4 big steals/blocks that will impact the game. JaMychal Green is still the biggest offensive weapon on this team, but I'm not sure that Tony Mitchell isn't an even more important player. Speaking of Green, he was a big part of the win with 15 points, 6 rebounds, and especially 3 blocks, but Auburn limited his touches a good bit around the basket throughout the game. As well as he's playing right now, he needs to fight as hard as he can to get touches, especially when other teams try to take him out of the game.
Trevor Releford was stuffed repeatedly on his drives in the paint, and he missed most of the first half with foul trouble, so this wasn't his best game by any means. Still, the 3-pointer he hit with 4 minutes remaining was the shot that ultimately broke Auburn's back and put Bama in control for good; probably the biggest shot of the game. Ben Eblen backed him up when he went out in the first half, and true to form, Eblen played 12 minutes without an assist or shot attempt, but to his credit he also committed no turnovers in that time. Progress.
Charvez Davis continues to struggle to find his range outside of Coleman Coliseum. He went 2-of-10 from the arc, and for whatever reason he has yet to have a good shooting game in a road or neutral environment all season long. That absolutely must change if Bama wants to finish near the top of the SEC standings. Senario Hillman played his most extensive minutes of conference play yesterday with 29 minutes coming off the bench, including nearly the entirety of the second half. As always he was very good defensively, but he also made some things happen on offense, leading the team with 5 assists while hitting 3-of-6 inside the arc. The only big negative was that he was 0-for-4 from outside the arc.
Andrew Steele continues to provide quality, versatile depth coming off the bench. He's been solid filling in at the two and three positions all during SEC play, and yesterday he even saw some time briefly at the four. Charles Hankerson also saw his first live action during SEC play, contributing four minutes late in the first half when Bama needed an extra body with Releford having to sit out for most of the half.
The most pivotal plays of the game, though, may have come from an unlikely source: Chris Hines. The team's poorest free throw shooter hit 6 big shots from the stripe, all at crucial times, and also generated 5 steals, several of which killed Auburn chances to make a run in the game. Hines isn't, and never will be, a scorer, but he gets it done every night on defense and on the boards.
Ugly though it may have been, this was a sweet victory for the Tide. It put Bama into a first-place tie in the SEC, kept the team's momentum going into the bye week, and most importantly prevented a loss to an inferior rival that honestly had nothing to gain this season but to beat us on their home floor. Furthermore, it kept Auburn winless in the SEC, ensuring that their chase of history (no SEC team has ever gone winless in the modern era) will continue. Auburn still has a chance for an upset or two at home against a notoriously down SEC, but now that Bama has come in and beaten them in their place, you can rest assured that if it does happen, almost no one will be there to see it.