TUSCALOOSA, Ala.-- The pattern for Anthony Grant's Alabama team this season is to create a cushion, get up to a large lead and slowly let it slip away until his team either wins or loses by a slim margin. That pattern repeated itself with Alabama's 82-80 win over LSU on Saturday.
Alabama played probably its best basketball all season in the first half against LSU. The team was passing well, making its shots—particularly 3-pointers—and went on a 22-2 scoring run. But after amassing a 19-point lead in the first half, Alabama became stagnant on offense, stood still and got dominated by LSU's full-court press defense. Trevor Releford had 19 points in the first half, two in the second.
"I thought it was our press. We were able to turn them over and get some easy scoring opportunities," LSU head coach Johnny Jones said. "Guys were able to knock down shots. We got some easy layup baskets as well but we just weren’t able to turn them over."
The Crimson Tide continued their run of average play, improving their overall record to 9-10 and SEC record to 3-3. The team’s second-leading scorer Retin Obasohan dressed for the game but never removed his warmups and didn't see the floor. He sat out for the second game in a row with an injured right hip flexor. Releford led all scorers with 21 points and scored double-digit points for the 20th consecutive game. Alabama's Rodney Cooper scored 19, Levi Randolph had 14 and Shannon Hale had 17, including a game-clinching 3-pointer with 46 seconds remaining in the game.
“That was huge," Releford said of Hale's shot at the end. "That just shows how much heart he has as a freshman. It’s difficult to hit a shot like that."
While the win was exhilarating and relieving for the most crowded Coleman Coliseum this season, this team's affection toward blowing leads is becoming exhausting. Finishing strong hadn't been in its playbook, and the Crimson Tide have shown that repeatedly throughout the season. But against LSU, even through the struggles and mediocrity, Alabama was finally able to come out on top.
"Our guys never folded," Grant said. "They got tougher and made the plays down the stretch that we needed to win the game.
"That is what I want to see out of our team. I want to see that growth."
But the growth for this team may have come too late in the season.
Alabama’s record against quality teams in the non-conference schedule this year was disappointing, and while the Crimson Tide have fared decently well during SEC play, a losing record at the end of January is not good enough for a team that should have put itself in a situation to make the NCAA Tournament this year.
After four years in Tuscaloosa, Grant hasn't turned the program into what it should be. The team is a constant underachiever. Grant has made the NCAA Tournament once at Alabama, losing to Creighton in the first round. The team has made the NIT twice, losing in the final in 2011 and losing in the quarterfinals last year. And this season, again, has shifted the Crimson Tide from being a bubble team, hoping to make the tournament, to an NIT-hopeful.
I guess it's already time to look toward next season.