The Crimson Tide basketball team walked into a miserable situation in Baton Rouge last night, an utter lose-lose proposition that threatened to permanently derail Bama's NCAA Tournament hopes. The Tide had a proverbial gun to its head all night, and it looked for a long time like LSU just might get a chance to pull the trigger, but the Tide managed to escape with an ugly, yet crucial, 67-56 road win, completing the season sweep of the Tigers for the second year in a row.
In the pregame article, I referred to this game as "the most vital in years." When all is said and done this year, whatever the outcome, this game won't be one of even the top ten that will be remembered or talked about. After all, it was an ugly, sloppy game played in front of one of the smallest crowds to ever witness an SEC basketball game outside the city of Auburn. But really Bama got exactly what it wanted: a forgettable game. We knew a win wouldn't do anything for us, but with a loss, LSU's RPI would have spelled RIP for the Tide's resume, and the sting of this game could have been remembered for years to come. That didn't happen. Luckily this game will quickly be forgotten, and that's really the best we could have hoped for.
LSU jumped out to a 7-0 lead, though the Tide kept its composure and managed to outscore the Tigers 36-24 over the remainder of the half to take a 5-point lead into the locker room. Bama kept the lead between 5-10 points for most of the second half, but LSU managed to stay within striking position, getting as close as one possession on several occasions in the final 8 minutes. Fortunately, Bama's players kept their composure when the pressure mounted, and they made the plays to put the game away in the final 3 minutes--perhaps a little later than some Bama fans would have liked to have seen it put away, but put it away they did.
If Bama fans weren't convinced that Andrew Steele is becoming more than just a role player, they should be after last night's game. Steele scored 10 points and seemed to do everything right on both ends of the court in a season-high 30 minutes of action. I don't think there's any doubt that when Davis isn't hitting his shots (which he never does on the road), that Steele is our best off-guard on the team. He may not officially be a starter yet, but he's been playing starter's minutes lately, and he's been making the most of them. He's also clearly a leader on this team, perhaps the biggest thing we were missing from him in his absence the first half of the season.
Trevor Releford made some freshman mistakes at times, but when it really counted in crunch time, especially as the pressure was mounting, he led the team like a veteran floor general, putting the game away with a big-time and-1 and free throw with two minutes left. He finished with 15 points, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 4 turnovers in 33 minutes of game action. Releford has improved his finishing around the rim, and as a result he has emerged as more and more of a scoring weapon in recent weeks.
JaMychal Green had a somewhat quiet night, but in a sign of how consistent he has become, he still scored 18 points and grabbed 7 rebounds. What's more, he did all that in only 25 minutes of action after picking up a 4th foul midway through the second half. Green struggled a bit at times when trying to post up or pull up in the halfcourt offense, but he made up for it with putbacks and fastbreaks.
Chris Hines was a little more aggressive on offense than he normally is, and he was able to contribute 7 points and 6 rebounds in addition to some big-time defensive minutes he put in on LSU's Malcolm White, who had done some damage on Green in the first half.
Charvez Davis continues to start, but he also continues to put up bricks outside of Coleman Coliseum. He went 1-for-6 from the field, scoring only 2 points while committing 2 turnovers. He played half the game, but that was significantly less than fellow guard Andrew Steele. Davis is a valuable part of the team, but Grant and the other players are starting to learn to play without relying on him. When he does shoot well, it's a great boost to the Bama offense and makes the team much more dangerous, but when he doesn't, he becomes more of a minor role player than an integral part of the team, which has been the case in recent road games.
Senario Hillman curiously only played 12 minutes in this game, though he was in a little bit of foul trouble. It could just be the way the game was flowing, or it could be that the emergence of Steele is beginning to cost him some minutes as well as Davis.
Freshman Charles Hankerson saw live game action for the second game in a row, coming off the bench once in each half for a total of 8 minutes. He's obviously done enough at practice to earn the trust of the coaches. Ben Eblen came in to give Releford a breather at the midway point of each half, playing 5 minutes with an assist and no turnovers, though he did commit a costly foul. Freshman Jason Carter also came off the bench for the final 8 seconds of the first half for one defensive possession.
Tony Mitchell almost never left the floor in this one, playing 38 minutes while scoring 13 points. His scoring numbers weren't as gaudy in this one as they have been in recent games, but that's not a big concern. What could be a big concern, however, is a possible injury to his hand he picked up on a late missed dunk. He remained in the game, but Grant declined to comment afterward as to the extent of the injury. Let's hope it's nothing serious. I shudder to think what would happen if he couldn't play, or even if he was limited, down the stretch for us.
Assuming Mitchell is okay, though, Bama finds itself in fine shape after picking up a win in its "most vital game in years". The Tide is now tied for first place in the SEC with a 9-2 league record, and NCAA Tournament hopes are still alive, for now at least. For the second week in a row, Bama will once again have to face a tough SEC West team at home less than 48 hours after a flight home from a road game. Arkansas looms on Saturday, and with every dream still alive and a revenge factor to boot, the game in Tuscaloosa Saturday night will be big for the Tide. We'll have a preview up later today.