Allowing your bitter rival to ugly it up in your own gym should spell disaster. But Alabama snuck one out Wednesday night in a nervous Coleman Coliseum.
It did so with free throws.
A sloppily played night ended with a 55-49 Alabama win over Auburn thanks in part to a 24-5 scoring advantage from the line. The Crimson Tide (20-9, 9-6 SEC) took its fifth straight against Auburn and fourth in a row to close February and all but assure a trip to the NCAA tournament.
The disjointed night of basketball saw the hosts shoot 32 free throws to the guests’ 12. That was enough to overcome shooting 31.1 percent from the field and one of Auburn’s best defensive games of the year.
“I didn’t know what we shot until the end of the game, to be honest with you,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “We were able to get in the bonus early in the second half and we were converting our free throws. It was evident there a few minutes into the second half that this was going to be a grind-it-out possession-type game.”
Leading the rhythm-less second half for the Tide was senior JaMychal Green. The Montgomery native scored 13 of his team-high 15 after halftime while making 7 of 10 free throws.
Green said the unsightly game was reminiscent of the 51-49 Alabama win over Auburn in Tuscaloosa last year. Green tipped in a shot at the buzzer to win that one and he had another crucial follow-up Wednesday night.
His tap-in with 37.0 seconds left Alabama ahead 51-47. Auburn (14-15, 4-11) never got any closer after missing two late 3s and Alabama made 4 of 6 free throws to seal it. The emotions of senior night played a factor early on, Grant said.
“I wasn’t really bummed out,” Green said after scoring just two points in the first half. “I just knew there was 20 minutes left in the game, and so I just had to get refocused and come back with more energy. That’s what we did on the defensive end.”
Grant credited Auburn’s pressing style for killing the flow, but said his team’s late-game poise earned the win.
Freshman Trevor Lacey also played a big role. After spraining his ankle last Thursday and reinjuring it Saturday, the Huntsville product scored 10 points and made all four free-throw attempts.
The Tigers led as late as the 9-minute mark before Lacey scored five straight points. His 3-pointer with 8:29 left was the turning point, Auburn coach Tony Barbee said.
His team shot 41.7 percent from the field, but went just 4-for-21 from the perimeter. Alabama doubled down whenever Kenny Gabriel touched the ball, though he still scored a team-high 11 points.
The opening moments were a virtual replay of their Feb. 7 meeting that Alabama won 68-50. Auburn jumped to an 8-2 lead in front of a shell shocked Coleman Coliseum crowd. Tiger Noel Johnson nailed two 3s in the opening five minutes after entering with a 1.5-point scoring average.
The hot shooting, however, wouldn’t last. The Tigers missed seven straight perimeter jumpers and went more than eight minutes without points late in the half.
Alabama scored 13 straight points, but didn’t deliver much of a knockout punch by shooting 29.6 percent in the first half. Freshmen accounted for 13 of the first 15 points as the Tigers picked up six crucial blocks.
Alabama still hasn’t clinched the No. 4 seed in next week’s SEC tournament. It remains tied with Tennessee with matching 9-6 league records, though Alabama holds the head-to-head tie breaker if it comes to it.
A Tide win at Ole Miss on Saturday would secure the first round bye in the league tournament.