Alabama basketball shows its competitiveness in a prove-it win against Auburn

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It wasn’t Grant Nelson’s night early on during Wednesday’s game against No. 8 Auburn, and it appeared to be getting worse into the second half. Alabama’s senior forward had just air-balled his second shot of the game, but an offensive rebound by teammate Mouhamed Dioubate gave the offense another chance to score. What happened next took Coleman Coliseum by surprise: Nelson drove to the basket where he was met by a pair of Auburn defenders. A few seconds later, a reverse dunk plus the foul sent the arena into a frenzy.

“That ball was a little slippery; I think I airballed twice,” Nelson said. “It’s just our guys getting in there and crashing the offensive boards. (Dioubate) got the board, and I just saw an open lane and cut to the basket … It’s great to see the team working hard and it pays off.”

Nelson’s dunk propelled him to his first double-double of the season (14 points, 10 rebounds) and was a catalyst in the Crimson Tide’s 79-75 win over Auburn – which had won 11 straight and was in first place in the SEC entering Wednesday. Nelson’s play also represented something bigger, something that coach Nate Oats has been searching for within his team all season: competitive toughness.

“I think it shows that we do have some fight,” Oats said. “We got some guys that don’t want to lay down and just take (losses). I told them that our responses to some losses last season were 50-, 60-point wins; we weren’t going to hit that over the No. 8 team in the country, but we’re going to need an effort like that to get some wins this year, period.”

Analytically, Alabama (13-6, 5-1) is the same elite team it was a season ago when it swept SEC regular season and tournament titles en route to the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. It came into Wednesday ranked No. 8 in KenPom and No. 9 in the NET, with the nation’s third-most efficient offense. But the Tide were just 2-4 in Quad 1 games, playing well in stretches but not well enough to finish games against top opponents. A 91-71 road loss at No. 5 Tennessee on Saturday set the stage for simultaneously the biggest game of the season and a prove-it contest for both sides, as Auburn (16-3, 5-1) had yet to win a Quad 1 game.

This time, Alabama delivered.

“This is momentum,” Nelson said. “I mean, we had momentum going into the Tennessee game, (but) we kind of went in a little lackadaisical. I feel like we’re back. We got a lot to learn and grow on, but this was a huge one at home. We’re not done.”

What made the win sweeter is that by Alabama’s standards, this wasn’t its best game of the season. The nation’s No. 4 scoring team (89.2 points per game) was held 10 points below its average. The team that ranks 23rd in field-goal percentage (48.8) shot only 38.2 percent from the field against the Tigers. A poor start, an area that still needs improvement, led to an early 12-4 deficit. But behind hot shooting from Rylan Griffen and Latrell Wrightsell Jr., the Tide roared back and carried a 44-30 lead into halftime, only to see Auburn take a 58-57 lead with 9:16 to play.

Oats emphasized before the game that winning in ways besides 3-point shooting (Alabama was 11-of-30 on Wednesday) is the mark of great teams.

“I went through and read off stats where we’ve shot really poorly from 3 and won big games,” Oats said. “Take care of the ball, get to the free-throw line and make free throws and win the rebounding battle.”

Alabama’s the best free-throw shooting team, and on Wednesday it made 16 of its 19 attempts, and got to the line 17 times in the second half. But the biggest metric that turned the game in the Tide’s favor was rebounding, particularly on the offensive end. Alabama outrebounded Auburn 45-39, and that included 16 offensive rebounds for 21 second-chance points.

Wrightsell was inserted into the starting lineup in place of Griffen and recorded 14 points and 9 rebounds. Griffen poured in 17 points, Nelson had 14 and the SEC’s leading scorer, Mark Sears, added 20 points. Those four look like the nucleus of a definitive closing lineup moving forward.

Alabama and Auburn have split the last three SEC regular-season titles, and in each of those seasons the winning team has swept the season series. The Crimson Tide are on the board first and will travel to Auburn on Feb. 7. It’s a little premature to pencil Alabama in as SEC champions, but Wednesday’s win confirms that championship traits exist within the team. The next challenge is sustaining it.

“If we play like we did tonight, we’ll lose at their place,” Oats said. “So we’re going to be extremely happy and excited that we got the win and we’re in first place, but we got a lot to work on between now and then.”

(Photo of Rylan Griffen: Vasha Hunt / AP)

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