The Crimson Tide basketball team played probably its most exciting and heart-stopping game of the season last night, losing an exhilarating 81-77 shootout to #24 Vanderbilt at Memorial Fortress, extending a painful losing streak that began in 1991 and will be assured of continuing until at least 2013.
Whew. What can be said about this one? Well, most of the talk post-game last night and no doubt into today will revolve around the officiating. I don't know what I can add that hasn't already been said, so at this point I'm just going to let it go.
Aside from just the late-game calls and no-calls, though, pretty much everything about this game went just as Vandy wanted it to. First, the game was played at their pace, with a combined 159 points--a big advantage for a team as good offensively as Vandy playing a team that relies on winning low-scoring games like Alabama.
Second, we did the one thing you absolutely do not want to do against Vanderbilt if you want to have a prayer to beat the 'Dores in that hell-hole of a gym: allow them to get hot from the 3-point line. Vandy went 9-for-19, shooting exactly 50% before a desperation 3 fell short as the shot clock was expiring late in the game. When Vandy, a team that traditionally relies heavily on 3-pointers, hits around 50% from the arc, they don't lose in Memorial. When they hit that many 3's at that high a rate, no one--name any team in the county--can expect to beat them in that building.
Third, making matters even worse, the Tide had a putrid night shooting from the arc, which is saying something for a team that's the worst shooting team in the league to begin with. 30% from the arc is below what you want. 25% is bad. 20% is awful. We were 2 of 15--a cool 13%. These were wide open 3's too, shots you just have to knock down, at least from time to time. What made our 2-for-15 performance even worse was the fact that the two treys we did hit were the two shots that had the least odds of going in: a halftime buzzer-beater from about 6 feet behind the arc from Tony Mitchell, and a contested trey by JaMychal Green--who hadn't even attempted a 3-pointer all season--late in the game with the shot clock running down. Put another way, we were 0-for-12 from the arc in the course of our normal offense (ignoring the long heave at the buzzer by Charvez Davis in addition to the two makes mentioned already).
Now, considering all of that, it is an absolute miracle that the Tide fought its way back and were actually in a position to have the game ripped out of our hands by a prayer of a shot and some questionable refereeing decisions in the final 17 seconds. Think about it. We faced a legit top-25 team on a hot shooting night in a setting known to give them a huge advantage, compounded with our own complete inability to hit an open 3-pointer--and we went toe-to-toe with them for 40 minutes.
Make no mistake: this loss hurt, and a heartbreaking loss in the final 17 seconds counts just the same as a 30-point blowout when it comes to the SEC Championship race and when it comes to NCAA Tournament resumes. With that said, I feel very confident in saying that no team in the SEC, and few teams in the country, could have done what Bama did last night given the way the game played out. To be sure, Bama's defense allowed too many Vandy players to get open on the arc--something we haven't done often this season--and of course we have no one to blame but ourselves for missing all 12 of our open 3-point attempts.
But with every reason for this game to become a blowout, this Bama team made us all believe, to the point where we felt we had our hearts ripped out in those last 17 seconds. We showed everyone around the SEC and the country that Bama's results in the last 12 games have been no fluke. We proved we are good enough to play with one of the better teams in the country even in adverse circumstances.
Some good news with the way we played was the efficiency of our offense. You've already heard about how our horrible 3-point shooting, but most of those were wide open shots that we were able to put up, they just didn't fall for us. But look at what we did inside the arc. We were 28 of 39, a dazzling 72% rate inside the 3-point line. We had tremendous success breaking down both Vandy's man and zone defenses, and if only one or two of our open outside shots had fallen, we would have done the unthinkable and outscored Vanderbilt in a shootout in their own house. Considering the 3's we missed were mostly wide open, this was the best our offense has performed all season in terms of effectively breaking down a good defense and getting good shots.
The bad news, of course, was on the other end. We knew going in that Vanderbilt was one of the country's best offenses, while Bama was one of the country's best defenses. Something had to give, and unfortunately--thanks primarily to our uncharacteristically losing players out on the perimeter, especially early in the game--the something that gave way was our defense. Vandy racked up 81 points, something that was a very bad sign considering that we've only allowed four teams to score more than 66 on us--and that we've lost all four of those times.
From an individual standpoint, we got absolutely outstanding performances from three of our non-star players. Senario Hillman completely changed the game with his defense. He only gets credit for 2 steals on the score sheet, but he caused at least five turnovers all by himself. He also contributed 6 points and actually led the team with 4 assists. Good stuff all around for Hillman.
Andrew Steele continues to provide solid all-around minutes for this team in all phases. He got 6 points on 3-of-5 shooting, added an assist, 3 rebounds and 2 steals, and was very good defensively, often matching up against Vandy's biggest offensive weapons. He's a great utility player to have providing depth for us.
For much of the game, Chris Hines was our best post player. He was better defensively against Ezeli than Green, was more active offensively in the first half, and actually had one of the best offensive performances of his career with 9 points on 4-of-5 shooting.
When it comes to our three star players, each had moments where they completely took over the game, with each putting the team on his back at different times. All three seem to be raising their level of play nearly each and every game out, and at this point it will be a surprise if all three don't end up on All-SEC lists at the end of the season.
Early in the first half as well as the very end of the game, it was young freshman point guard Trevor Releford who seemed primed to take over the game. He had several highlight reel plays--including a phenomenal drive and finish with 23 seconds left to give Bama the lead--en route to posting 11 points on only 7 shot attempts. He also added 2 assists and 2 steals while committing only 2 turnovers in 33 minutes of running the offense.
Throughout the rest of the first half it was sophomore wing player Tony Mitchell who put the team on his shoulders. He scored 16 points in the first half alone en route to a game total of 22 points--his third straight game scoring more than 20 points. He was limited on the boards in this one, but Mitchell's scoring numbers are soon going to make him a household name in the SEC and remove his title of "best player in the SEC no one talks about".
Talk about a tale of two halves for JaMychal Green. In the opening half he was straight-up owned on both ends of the court by Vandy's big center Ezeli, and ended the half with only 4 points and 2 rebounds. The second half was a completely different story, though. Green without a doubt put the team on his shoulders in that half, posting the best single-half numbers we've seen from a Bama player in years. In that half alone, Green scored 19 points and grabbed 8 rebounds--numbers that would extrapolate to 38 points and 16 rebounds in a full game. He finished with a game-high 23 points, a game-high 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks and 2 assists. Say what you will about what he did in the first half and his frustrating penchant for picking up technicals, but you could never dream up, much less ask for, a performance like he gave us in the second half.
The only other two players to see action were Ben Eblen and Charvez Davis. Eblen played his role well, stepping in when needed for Releford, and playing quite well on defense while avoiding turnovers on offense. Davis, however, did not have a positive night. For the second straight game, he went 0-fer from the arc and failed to score at all. Furthermore, he wasn't able to contribute much on the defensive end. He isn't big enough to guard Taylor, isn't quick enough to guard Tinsley, and simply could not keep up when he tried to guard Jenkins. As a result, Hillman and Steele both actually played more minutes than Davis in this one. I've almost given up on him having a good shooting night outside of Coleman Coliseum, but at this point I'll be happy if he can just return to his scoring ways inside Coleman, where we are about to have s series of nearly must-win games coming up.
Speaking of nearly must-win games taking place in Coleman, there's going to be one tomorrow. That's right. Bama will have a mere 41 hours to prepare to face red-hot Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa on Saturday afternoon. It's great to get national exposure like we did in a primetime Thursday game on ESPN2, but the price is that after a grueling emotional battle, we now have literally one day to prepare for a game we simply can not afford to lose against a team that right now is the clear second-best team in the West Division.
Including the Ole Miss game, we now have five straight games against SEC West teams. We will probably be favored in each, but none, save perhaps the home game against Auburn, will be easy. We'll have to play LSU on the road, and Ole Miss and Arkansas (the next two home games) are probably the two best teams in the West besides Bama. Then there's the game at Ole Miss at the end of that stretch which might be considered a toss-up. Given all that, Bama really needs to somehow go 5-0 to be in strong position for in the SEC Championship race and the NCAA bubble heading into the final week of play against Florida and Georgia. Perhaps we can afford to lose one of the five, but lose two and our SEC title and NCAA dreams are all but dead.
This Vanderbilt loss won't in and of itself hurt our resume. But it does increase the pressure on us to win these games coming up. Starting tomorrow. Look for Ole Miss preview late this afternoon.