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Braxton is Key to Tide victory over the Bulldogs...and the Red Panda wows

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Alabama played an almost perfect first half, struggled in the second half, and held on to defeat Mississippi State 68-62

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday night’s game between Alabama and Mississippi State was a tale of two halves. The Crimson Tide came out smoking in the first half on Saturday night against the Bulldogs, and played easily their best half of the year. Playing once again without star freshman point guard, Collin Sexton (abdominal injury.) and with a recovering Donta Hall, the Tide rolled the Bulldogs to the tune of a 41-22 halftime lead. The second half turned out to be another story.

But the highlight of the game may have been the halftime show, as The Red Panda was the entertainment.

In half number one, almost everything was working: shooting (16-31, 52%), three-point shooting (4-8), passing (12 assists), taking care of the ball (four turnovers), rebounds (20-18 margin). The one drawback was reverting back to poor, (well, actually terrible) freethrow shooting, 5-11 for 45% at the break. Daniel Giddens was a presence down low, scoring 10 points in the first stanza. John Petty and Braxton Key both had seven points and Hall added six. Meanwhile on the defensive end, ‘Bama held the Bulldogs to 8-25 shooting, 2-10 from deep and forced 10 turnovers.

The first half was a thing of beauty, with ball movement, active defense and high energy prevailing. Dazon Ingram had five assists, Key had four and Petty had three, but all of the highlight variety. Petty followed a bullet to Key that threaded the needle through three players with a behind the head, no look dime to Giddens for a bucket within 30 seconds of each other.

The Red Panda came out on her extra tall unicycle and preceded to wow the capacity crowd with her balance and amazing feat of flipping first one, then two, then three then four then five, bowls off of one foot into a basket on her head, with out missing or dropping a single one. If you haven't ever seen her, Google her, it truly is an amazing athletic performance. [Ed. Note: After you do that, look up the video of Marshawn Lynch watching her.]

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 03 Tulane at North Carolina Photo by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Tide came out in the second half and quickly allowed State to start to close the gap. Lamar Peters heated up for the Dogs hitting three quick baskets from deep, all the while ‘Bama was missing dunks and layups at an alarming rate. Hall, playing just barely a week after wrist surgery, was active and giving it is all, but clearly was bothered by his injury. Hall, Herbert Jones, Giddens, Ingram and Key all missed point blank shot or dunks down low and MSU steadily took advantage, systematically eating into the seeming insurmountable lead. Poor shooting, both from the field and the charity stripe almost doomed the Tide.

MSU finally caught up around the five minute mark, tying the game at 54 each. Braxton Key then hit a big three-pointer for a 57-54 lead. When the clock reached three minutes, the Dogs tied the game again at 58. Ingram then was fouled, and calmly hit both ends of a one and one. State made two freebies of their own with 1:38 left. Key slashed through the lane, grabbed an offensive rebound, and slammed it home for a 62-60 lead. Petty then worked his way into the lane and dropped in a basket for a four point lead. State made two more free throws with 22 seconds left. Ingram was fouled and once again made both ends of a clutch one and one situation.

The Tide closed it out with a Jones breakaway dunk for the 68-62 win. ‘Bama never allowed State to take the lead, all though they did tie the game several times down the stretch.

As well as the Tide shot in the first half, they shot just as poorly in the second. The team dropped to 29% (9-29) with only 1-8 from deep. The free throw shooting “improved” to 8-12 for 66%. Overall, the numbers were 25-60 (41% from the floor, going 5-16 for 31% from deep. The free throw shooting was awful, 13-23 for 56%. After dishing 12 first half assists, the team only had four in the second half, and added seven turnovers after having only four in the first. State ended the game shooting 37% from the floor, 30% from deep, and 81% from the line. Alabama’s narrow edge on the glass held up, as the Tide had 40 rebounds to 38 for the ‘Dogs.

Key was as close to form as he has been since his injury, scoring 16 points with five rebounds, four assists, three steals, a block and only two turnovers. Giddens added 13 points and had four rebounds and three blocked shots. Petty scored nine with four assists, Hall added eight points and five rebounds, and Ingram had seven points (all from the free throw line as he went 7-10), six assists and lead the team with nine rebounds.

The first half of play had people wondering, does this team play better without Sexton? Do they share the ball better, move better, not stand around and wait for Collin to weave his magic? It almost looked that way for the first 20 minutes. Those same people may have changed their minds after the second half of play. The team definitely needs his ball handling ability, as Ingram is much better off the ball when he doesn't have to be a full-time point guard. When Sexton gets back, the break may have been a good thing, as the team has learned they can win without him, and he has realized he doesn't have to do it all by himself.

Regardless of the near meltdown, the Tide has now won four straight and his squarely back in the mix for the NCAA Tournament, and sits one game out of first place in the SEC. The four-game winning streak is an SEC best, and improves ‘Bama to 13-6, 5-2 in the SEC. MSU fell to 14-5, 2-4.

The next test will be tough, on the road at Ole Miss on Tuesday. The game is at 7:30 CT and can be seen on the SEC Network. Then on Saturday the mortal lock for Wooden player of the year, Freshman Trae Young and the Oklahoma Sooners come to Tuscaloosa — hopefully for a Sexton-Young showdown, in a 1:15 p.m. ESPN game.

Roll Tide and Buckle Up

Ed. Note: I couldn’t let the Red Panda love go without actually linking to it. It’s the most amazing thing you’ll see live: No one goes to the bathroom, gets concessions, the student section is absolutely riveted...and then she does this: