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Tide overwhelms Ole Miss, then holds on for key victory

The Crimson Tide basketball team got exactly what it needed on Saturday: a home win against a red-hot Ole Miss team that had won three straight SEC games coming into the contest. The 74-64 win moves the Tide to 8-2 in SEC play, only a half game behind Florida for the lead in the SEC Championship race.

The 10-point victory may not be all that surprising, but the way it unfolded was. The Tide completely overwhelmed the Rebels on both ends in the first half, racing out to a 47-27 lead at the half, a lead that expanded to 55-32 early in the second half. It was then that the game completely turned around and Ole Miss began to dominate for much of the second half, outscoring the Tide 32-15 over a 15-minute span to get as close as 6 points with about 2 minutes remaining.

The Rebel comeback was keyed in part by a flurry of made 3's--many of them from deep behind the arc--and in part by the Tide's seeming willingness to shut down the offense perhaps a little too early. Whether by design of the coaches or not, the players seemed content to start milking the clock on offense and waiting deep into the shot clock to start attacking the goal. Combined with an energized Ole Miss defense feeding off their hot shooting on the other end, the Tide nearly let the Rebels steal the game away.

Fortunately, the Tide was so good in the opening half that even that big Ole Miss run proved to be insufficient in the end--thanks in part, of course, to some clutch plays by Bama players in the last two minutes to put the game away for good. In the first half, Alabama showed just how good a team we can be when we actually hit outside shots. The Tide's offensive stats in the first half were thus: 47 points (tied for highest single half total of year), 5 of 9 shooting from the arc, 14 assists (we average 13.4 per game) on only 3 turnovers, and 8 offensive rebounds. The Bama defense also put up some good numbers, generating 4 blocks and 5 steals while allowing Ole Miss to shoot only 39% from the floor and grab 3 offensive rebounds. Bama's domination in the first half was so thorough and methodical that there wasn't even a run anywhere to be seen, and the crowd never even really got into the game. The Tide just slowly built its lead throughout the half, which despite the scare we all experienced in the second half, really won the game for us.

Quickly, some individual notes.
-Tony Mitchell: 20 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks in 27 minutes. Didn't start because of a "coach's decision", something Grant was very adamant about refusing to comment on further, and only played 27 minutes, a good bit below his SEC average. Still, he had his 4th straight 20+ point game and continues to shoot at a much higher rate from outside than we've seen all year. He's now making a serious run at All-SEC honors. A big question moving forward is, can he continue his (relatively) hot shooting from outside? Last year around this same time of the season, he had a similar 4-game stretch in which he went 7-of-14 from the arc, but then after that he cooled back off in terms of his shooting. I've said it many times, but if/when he starts shooting like this consistently, he's All-SEC and ultimately NBA-bound.

-Trevor Releford: 14 points, 7 assists, 3 steals, 3 turnovers in 34 minutes. Releford continues to improve each and every game out. He's been everything we hoped he would be when he signed as a highly recruited point guard prospect last year. On Saturday he hit 3 of 4 from the arc, showcasing some promise in the one area of his game that is lacking for him to be a dynamite player as he continues to improve. He's beginning to attack the rim more, which is leading to good things for the Bama offense, even though he still gets shots blocked a good bit.

-JaMychal Green: 15 points, 6 blocks, 5 rebounds, 3 steals in 30 minutes. It wasn't one of Green's best scoring nights, though he was 6-for-8 from the field. He was dominant around the rim, though, with 6 blocks--the highest total for any Bama player this season. Perhaps his most important contribution came in the locker room, when he stood up at halftime and reminded the team of the blown 20-point lead against Ole Miss last season while encouraging the players to bring the same energy in the second half as they did in the first. Given the way the second half went, I'm not sure how effective this was, but nevertheless it is yet another sign of Green's ongoing maturing process that he was able to show some leadership like that.

-Andrew Steele: 9 points, 5 rebounds in 28 minutes. Steele made his second appearance in the starting lineup this season, and for the second straight game he played 28 minutes. His role is increasing each game out, and rightfully so. Steele is versatile in that he can play either at guard or on the wing, he is a good defender, he doesn't turn the ball over, and more and more he is finding ways to score and make plays on offense.

-Charvez Davis: 8 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists in 28 minutes. Davis, not surprisingly, was very effective shooting the ball in this one. After all, he almost always is in Coleman. He was 2-for-4 from the arc, adding a layup and a couple assists to an overall decent offensive performance. Defensively, he was surprisingly effective when paired with the SEC's second-leading scorer Chris Warren. After getting torched by Vandy's John Jenkins, Davis did an outstanding job keeping up with Warren in this one, though despite what the announcers were saying, he wasn't guarding him the whole game--both Releford and Hillman deserve credit as well for our holding Warren to only two made shots the entire game, both coming in the last two minutes.

-Senario Hillman: 6 points, 3 assists in 20 minutes. Hillman played his usual stalwart role on defense, helping to silence Warren. He was active on offense, particularly in drawing fouls and dishing assists. He only made one shot from the field, but it was the shot that effectively put the game away when he finished a tough reverse layup for an and-one to extend the lead from 6 to 9 points with less than two minutes remaining.

-Chris Hines: 4 rebounds, 2 blocks in 23 minutes. Hines had a quiet night, not scoring at all. Still, he is our best defensive post player and his value never has been measured in points.

-Ben Eblen: 1 assist in 6 minutes. No complaints in Eblen's brief spurts midway through each half. Carry on, young man.

-Charles Hankerson: 2 points in 4 minutes. In what was described as a reward for his hard work and improvement in practice, Hankerson saw live game action for only the second time in SEC play. He looked confident and capable of contributing on both ends of the floor; his only problem is that he plays exactly the same role on the team as Steele, and right now he's simply behind Steele on the depth chart.

This was a win Bama had to have, and have it we do. The good news is that we get some extra time off before our next game, on Thursday night in Baton Rouge. The bad news is that we face the exact same difficult short turn-around situation next week that we faced this week. We must fly to a game on Thursday night, and then play a fairly tough home game on Saturday, less than two days later. Continuing the good news/bad news theme, the good news is that we will be favored to win both games, but the bad news is that the pressure for us to win each will be immense.

You always take everything one game at a time, but this is really a situation we have to look at as needing to win two games in a 48-hour period. The LSU game, given their god-awful RPI and resume, is a straight-up, flat-out, 100% must-win game. You don't say that often about a road game, but it certainly applies for this one if Bama wants to talk SEC title or NCAA berth. Then we get an up-and-down Arkansas team at home Saturday. If the LSU game is 100% must-win, this one is 90-95% must-win, given our current status and the fact that we already have one loss to the Hogs.

The Ole Miss game was also pretty much a must-win, and we now have that one behind us. Now, we have to do it again (at LSU). And Again (Arkansas). And then again (Auburn).