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SEC Notebook

February 18, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

SEC Notebook

by Rainer Sabin

If there was a game that could have stabilized the SEC West, last Saturday’s Alabama-Auburn match-up would have been it. Instead, the Crimson Tide’s 84-68 victory over the Tigers (17-6, 6-4 SEC) only created more havoc and complications in a division marked by chaos.

The Tide, which had lost five of its last six games going into its meeting with Auburn, seemed to be on the verge of collapsing. Alabama (14-7, 4-6 SEC) had trouble scoring from all areas of the floor, was hard pressed to earn a victory on the road, and had dropped out of the polls after being ranked No. 1 in December.

Meanwhile, Auburn had soared to the top of the SEC West standings in the opening weeks of conference play and continued to defy the prognosticators who picked the Tigers to finish near the bottom of the division. Before the Tigers marched into Tuscaloosa Saturday, Auburn still sat on top of the summit of the SEC West division’s mountain.

But all it took was forty minutes for that to change. Behind Erwin Dudley’s 20 points and 10 rebounds, the Crimson Tide was able to overpower its archrival. Putting forth its best offensive performance since an 89-61 victory over UNC-Greensboro Dec. 3, Alabama built a 26-point lead and never looked back. “We got good looks, Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said at a Monday news conference provided by the SEC. “It was just one of those nights where we didn’t hit shots. Alabama hit shots and we didn’t.”

The Crimson Tide, which was eleventh in the league in field goal percentage, shot 52 percent against a team that is second in the league in scoring defense.

As a result, the Tigers, who once served as the anchor in a division that sees turnover almost every week, are now in second place. Meanwhile, Alabama, which lost to Arkansas only the week before, beat one of the better teams in the conference and may return to its previous form. But that is the state of the Wild West, where stability and the expected are thrown out the window.

Rocky Top on Fire

Kentucky may be the hottest team in the league. But Tennessee (15-6, 7-3 SEC) is a close second. The Volunteers won their sixth consecutive game Saturday, upsetting No. 5 Florida 66-59 in Knoxville. Ron Slay, who leads the conference in scoring with a 21.8 points per game average, continued to dominate his opposition’s frontcourt.

The senior center scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, which helped complement sophomore forward Brandon Crump’s career-high 19 points. Crump, who had a bittersweet week after he pled guilty to an underage drinking violation last Tuesday, helped give Tennessee the edge it needed to beat a strong Florida Gators (20-4, 9-2 SEC) squad. “I thought that Brandon Crump was better than he was the last time we played,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said, referring to a 77-64 win over Tennessee earlier in the year. “He hurt us on transition, and on the offensive boards with his putbacks.” While Crump’s play definitely affected the outcome, poor shooting from Brett Nelson, Anthony Roberson, and Matt Walsh also proved to be the difference. The usually potent trio converted just three of 22 shots and scored a total of eight points. Tennessee, which beat Arkansas in Bud Walton Arena for the first time Wednesday looked impressive against a Florida team that was coming off a 74-55 beating of Ole Miss.

Battle of Mississippi Goes Overtime

This time Mississippi State (16-5, 6-4 SEC) did not need a last-second shot by Derrick Zimmerman to beat Ole Miss. It needed overtime. The Bulldogs, who outlasted Ole Miss 58-57 Jan. 29, survived another scare from the Rebels (12-10, 3-8 SEC) as they won 68-64 in Starkville. Center Mario Austin scored 19 points and converted a three-point play that put Mississippi State ahead for good in the extra session. His basket and free throw gave the Bulldogs a 64-62 lead that held up for the rest of the five-minute period.

However, a victory for Mississippi State was very much in doubt up until that point. Ole Miss forward Justin Reed’s two consecutive baskets in the final minute of regulation tied the game at 53 and sent the game into overtime. But the Rebels were unable to capitalize on their late surge and establish a definitive lead in the overtime session. As a result, the Rebels, who had never lost more than five games in a row in the Rod Barnes era, lost their sixth consecutive contest and also dropped the season series for the first time since 1995.

Wildcats Scratch Tigers

Kentucky (20-3, 10-0 SEC) has won 14 consecutive games. LSU (14-9, 3-8 SEC) has lost eight of its last 11 match-ups. Numbers usually don’t lie, and, in this case, they didn’t. On Saturday, in Lexington, the Wildcats scored a 68-57 victory over the Tigers. Guard Keith Bogans scored 20 points and his backcourt mate Gerald Fitch added 15 as Kentucky maintained the nation’s longest winning streak.

The Wildcats continued to play well on the defensive end, as they limited LSU to just 37 percent shooting from the field and Ronald Dupree, the Tigers’ leading scorer, to four points. However, LSU blamed itself more than Kentucky’s defense for the poor offensive performance. “They’re a very good defensive team, but I think we did it to ourselves today,” Tigers’ forward Collis Temple III said. “Not taking anything away from the way they play defense, but we got the shots we wanted and didn’t make them.”

Kentucky dominated the majority of the game, but suffered a letdown when the Wildcats built the lead up to 20 points. A series of mistakes allowed LSU to cut the lead to five in the final minute, prompting Kentucky to reestablish a wider margin in order to secure the victory. “We were trying to give them the knock-out punch,” Coach Tubby Smith said. “Cliff [Hawkins] threw the ball away and Antwain [Barbour] had a turnover right in front of our bench. We just needed to be more patient. The clock was our ally. Of course, we’ve not been in that situation this year, so we can learn from that.”

Georgia Gets Revenge, But it isn’t Pretty

Going into Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt, Georgia (14-7, 6-4 SEC) had suffered two consecutive defeats and was fourth in the SEC Eastern division. A win over the Commodores would not only get the Bulldogs back on track but would give them the satisfaction of revenge. That was all the motivation Georgia needed, as it made amends for a 94-91 loss to Vanderbilt (10-12, 3-8 SEC) Jan. 29 with an 83-70 victory Saturday. However, the win could not be characterized as pretty.

In forty minutes of basketball, 60 fouls were called-20 of which were accumulated by four players who were forced to leave the game. Moreover, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings was ejected for the first time in his 10-year career after receiving two technicals. Despite the ugly circumstances, Georgia was able to prevail, as it limited the Commodores to a 33 percent field goal percentage for the game. Part of the Commodores woes could be attributed to the uncharacteristically poor performance of Vanderbilt forward Matt Frieje. Frieje, who averages 17.6 points per game, was plagued by foul trouble and finished with just eight points.

Nevertheless, the Commodores remained in the game and cut the deficit to four, 62-58, with 5:38 remaining in regulation. That is when Georgia finally pulled away for good and ended a game in which the officials made their presence felt.

South Carolina Earns Third Win in a Row

In a battle of the two worst teams in the conference, South Carolina (10-11, 3-7 SEC) outlasted Arkansas 72-65, as Chris Warren scored 23 points and knocked down six of the nine three-point field goals he attempted. South Carolina was never able to distance itself from Arkansas, as the Razorbacks would answer a Gamecocks’ spurt with one of their own.

In fact, Arkansas (7-14, 2-8 SEC) took a 57-56 lead with 5:18 to go and the crowd at the Carolina Center in Columbia became antsy. Nevertheless, South Carolina responded with a couple baskets by forwards Kerbrell Brown and Tony Kitchings that reestablished a cushion for the Gamecocks. Warren’s last trifecta with 39 seconds left provided the coup de grace for Arkansas, which has yet to win a game on the road this season.

Nevertheless, Stan Heath feels the team is playing better and is ready for Wednesday’s battle with Kentucky. “We’re still trying to turn the corner,” Heath said at a Monday news conference provided by the SEC. “The one thing that pleases me is that we’re playing better basketball. We’re putting ourselves in position to win the game, we’re just not getting over the hump. Now we have the best of the best in Kentucky. On paper it looks like a mismatch. But we’re going to give them a fight.”


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