With a shot at an SEC title on the line and the threat of the Tide's NCAA Tournament bubble bursting, the Crimson Tide basketball team delivered a crucial 65-57 win on Saturday afternoon against the Georgia Bulldogs in Coleman Coliseum. Bama finished the regular season a perfect 16-0 at home, and finished with a 12-4 SEC record--tied for Alabama's best conference record since the SEC's expansion and move to a 16-game schedule in the early 1990's.
Although Bama gave itself a shot at sharing the SEC title, Florida's win over Vanderbilt erased that hope. Now that we know the Tide fell one game short of its SEC title dreams, let's just come out and say it: Florida deserves the crown. They had a better SEC record than Alabama despite playing a tougher schedule, they ran away with a very good East Division, and then when it all counted in the final week, they pounded us head-to-head to clinch a share of the title, and then won convincingly at Memorial Fortress of all places to stake claim to SEC supremacy. While it's disappointing to come so close and fall short, no one should have a problem with Florida being this year's SEC champion. Hopefully Bama will be competing for multiple SEC championships in the years to come under Coach Anthony Grant, but for now we can put all that talk behind us knowing the better team prevailed, and begin to focus on getting ourselves a bid to the Big Dance.
On that note, Saturday's win over likely NCAA Tournament-bound Georgia was huge. It marked the Tide's third win this season over a likely tournament team, and put the Tide squarely back on the NCAA bubble after two consecutive disappointing losses. We'll take a closer look at the Tide's NCAA prospects in the coming days.
As for the game itself, it was a solid, thorough outing from the Tide in all aspects. After a very shaky opening 6 minutes that saw Bama trailing 13-5, the Tide settled in and we finally saw Bama return to the form that had been missing from this team the last few outings. Bama's defense came alive after those opening 6 minutes, and the offense began to execute at a level we haven't seen the last several games. Alabama outscored Georgia 22-8 over the last 14 minutes of the first half to take a 27-21 lead into the locker room. In the second half, Georgia's offense started to get back into the game, but a series of rare 3-point makes was enough to keep the Tide out in front for the entirety of the second half. Georgia would never regain the lead.
Some will point to Bama's 5 made treys as the difference in the game, but considering the Tide took 16 shots from that range and finished right at its season average of 31%, 3-point shooting wasn't the real difference. In fact, Bama made only 39% of all shots from the floor, well below the season average. The two big factors offensively were offensive rebounds and turnovers. After starting the game with 4 turnovers in the first 4 minutes, the Tide committed only 4 in the final 36 minutes of the game--absolutely outstanding for a team that has been turning it over far too often in recent games. Bama also pulled down 15 offensive boards for a 41% offensive rebounding rate, which is especially impressive considering the size advantage Georgia was employing for most of the day.
On Senior Day, each of Bama's seniors stepped up in their own way (Grant gave all three a spot in the starting lineup), but none stepped up more than did Charvez Davis. In his final appearance at Coleman Coliseum, the sharpshooter nailed 5 of his 10 3-point attempts in addition to another long jumper to finish with 17 points on the day. In a sign of how important he was in the win, Davis almost never came off the floor, finishing with 38 minutes of action in which he put in some solid defensive work as well as being a key factor in Bama's ability to attack the Georgia zone. Davis finished with 4 assists and no turnovers and also had 2 steals. Davis had a stellar season at Coleman Coliseum, but has been rather ineffective away from it. Can he close his career with some hot neutral-site shooting? That will go a long way to determining how far Bama goes in the postseason.
Senario Hillman made a return to the starting lineup on his Senior Day, contributing 24 minutes of very good work on the defensive end. He didn't have a great day offensively, but he did grab 2 big offensive boards, including an "and-one" put-back. Hopefully Hillman will continue to be a spark for this team throughout the postseason.
Chris Hines decided to go out on his Senior Day in a blaze of glory, fouling out with nearly 7 minutes remaining after spending most of the day in foul trouble. It was a dumb foul, and considering Green had 4 fouls himself at that point, he put the team's hopes in some serious jeopardy by going out so soon. He only played 23 minutes due to foul trouble, and only scored 2 points, but when he was in the game it was noticeable how much better Bama's interior defense was. I firmly believe that he will be the senior we most miss next year because of his defensive prowess.
JaMychal Green only played 24 minutes himself due to foul trouble, but he made the most of those minutes, tallying 19 points and 9 rebounds in that limited action. Green was extremely effective against Georgia's zone, and had success in every phase on the offensive end. He performed like a first-team All-SEC player on Saturday, and considering that was the final audition before the official lists are released, a first-team All-SEC player is likely what he will be--Bama's first since Richard Hendrix four years ago.
Tony Mitchell was only 5 of 14 shooting on the day, ending just below his average with 13 points, but for the first time in a while he dominated on the boards. His 11 rebounds, and particularly his 7 offensive rebounds, were big for Bama playing against a bigger lineup. In fact, Mitchell had to play most of the day as a post player since both Hines and Green missed most of the game with foul trouble. Mitchell's ability to play down low is huge for this team, which only employs two true post players in the rotation. With what he gives the team on defense, offense and on the boards, it would be a shame if Tony Mitchell is not at least named second-team All-SEC.
After two straight poor performances against Auburn and Ole Miss, Trevor Releford has recaptured his magic the last two games. He was the lone bright spot against Florida, and he delivered a good all-around performance on Saturday against Georgia. He was only 3 of 9 from the floor, and had only 1 assist to 3 turnovers, but he was instrumental in leading the offensive attack and in being aggressive attacking the basket. It would be nice to see his assist numbers a little higher, but Releford seems to have at least shaken his brief slump. Releford has also quietly become a very solid perimeter defender as the year has dragged on, something he doesn't get enough credit for. What he should get credit for, though, is being named to the SEC All-Freshman team.
The Tide now has six days to prepare for the postseason, which could go a number of directions for this team. The SEC Tournament opener on Friday will go a long way in determining what that direction is.
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