Coach Anthony Grant and his Crimson Tide basketball team had quite a mission to accomplish Tuesday night in Auburn. They had to find a way to defeat the rival Tigers without their second leading scorer, junior forward Tony Mitchell, who has been suspended from the team indefinitely. They had to do this in Auburn Arena, where the Tigers were 12-1 this season. And, they had to do all of this while still recovering from a 4 game losing streak that had seriously crippled their chances of making of the NCAA Tournament. However, when all was said and done Tuesday night, Grant and the Tide were able to walk off the court with a 68-50 victory and the satisfaction of knowing that the mission had been accomplished. The coach was quick to praise his team for their performance, especially considering the environment.
"Obviously any time you put these two teams together there's going to be a lot of excitement," he said. "Our guys understood the challenge that we had. I thought we were able to create some transition opportunities. We handled the changing defenses well and everyone that stepped on the floor for UA gave a great effort."
The victory, which was the 3rd straight overall for the Tide and the 4th straight against Auburn, came in large part because the Tide played effectively on both offense and defense while receiving significant playing time from their bench. Alabama shot 46% overall and a rare 43% from behind the arc while also forcing the Tigers in to 17 turnovers. The Tide's bench outscored the Tigers 28-9 in an equal 64 minutes of combined playing time. The Tide was also helped by the sometimes sloppy play of the Tigers, who had two technical fouls called for hanging on the rim and a third technical called against coach Tony Barbee for arguing a foul call against Rob Chubb. Bama also out-shot Auburn from the charity stripe by a wide margin. The Tide was 14 of 20 (70%) while the Tigers were a miserable 12 of 26 (46%).
Alabama, who now improves to 16-7 overall and 5-4 in Southeastern Conference play, did not start the game the way they would have liked. A little over 5 minutes in to the game the Tide found themselves trailing the Tigers 14-7. But, thanks to JaMychal Green, Trevor Releford, and the little used Charles Hankerson, Jr., the Tide was able to go in to the half up 35-24. Green scored 12 of his 19 points in the first half, while Releford scored 8 of his 15. Senior forward Green also led the Tide in rebounding with 7, while Releford, the sophomore point guard, had 5. However, the story of the half was Hankerson, who scored 9 first half points, all of them coming on his 3-3 shooting from behind the 3-point line. The reserve sophomore guard had a much-needed 14 total points for the Mitchell-less Tide.
Grant was pleased with his team's response to the early adversity they faced, stating "I thought we came out with great energy and weathered the storm early. I'm proud of the way our guys responded."
Other key contributors off the bench were freshman guard Rodney Cooper, who was 2-2 from behind the arc and scored all 8 of his points in the second half, and sophomore center Carl Engstrom. While Engstrom only scored 4 points in 7 minutes of playing time, all in the first half, he was able to enter the game early and effectively shut down Chubb after the junior center scored 8 of Auburn's first 10 points in quick succession. Senior guard Andrew Steele had 6 assists to go along with 2 points in his first start the season.
The Tigers, who fall to 13-11 overall and 3-7 in the conference, were led by junior guard Frankie Sullivan's 21 points. Despite scoring 8 of the Tigers' first 10 points, Chubb was held scoreless the rest of the game. He did, however, have 3 rebounds. He was matched by senior forward Kenny Gabriel and his 8 points and 3 rebounds. Although Barbee expressed displeasure throughout the game with some of the officiating, he was quick to point out afterwards that fouls were not the reason for the loss.
"At the end of the day, it came down to toughness. We got out-toughed," he said. "It was disappointing."
Alabama's next game will also take them to an old SEC western division rival. They must now travel to Baton Rouge to face a LSU team that is much improved since Bama beat them earlier this season at Coleman Coliseum by a score of 69-53. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 pm CT with ESPN2 slated to broadcast the action.