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February 20, 2013

Alabama keeps SEC hopes alive

TUSCALOOSA | Like a meal from a fast-food drive-through, it was neither memorable nor appealing - but as lukewarm as it was, it did beat starvation.

That was the overall impression as the University of Alabama men's basketball team held off the last-place team in the Southeastern Conference on Wednesday night, beating Mississippi State 64-56 to maintain control of its own destiny in the SEC race.

The Crimson Tide never trailed after the first two minutes and maintained a lead that hovered around the 10-point mark for most of the night, until a late scoring drought enabled the Bulldogs to cut the Crimson Tide (18-8, 10-3 SEC) lead to an uncomfortable 47-43 with 5:18 remaining.

Rodney Cooper hit what was probably the biggest shot of the game on the return trip for UA, a 3-pointer that ignited a 15-4 Alabama run and put the game out of reach despite three MSU 3-pointers in the final 58 seconds.

If the game had any spice at all, it came from Cooper. The sophomore forward scored a season-high 20 points and added 10 rebounds, just the second double-double performance by a Crimson Tide player this season.

"We played a team in Mississippi State that brought great effort and great energy and in a lot of ways outplayed us," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. "I thought Rodney brought the energy that we needed, and Trevor (Releford) had good energy, so we got the win and kept in line for the things we want to accomplish."

Releford had 17 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals in the game.

"I just don't think we had the energy we needed tonight," Releford said. "But we stayed together as a team and we hit back when we had to."

Mississippi State (7-18, 2-11) was led by Jalen Steele, who returned from a three-game suspension to score 15 points.

"To be honest, I was a little worried where our team's psyche was and whether they would continue to compete," MSU coach Rick Ray said. "But we did compete. We just turned the ball over too often in the frontcourt, unforced turnovers that really hurt us."

Alabama forced 23 turnovers and had a season-high 18 steals in the game.

"I don't know that we did a great job defensively tonight," Grant said. "They shot 54 percent in the second half. That isn't great defense. So it was very beneficial that we were able to force some turnovers.

"I just want to see consistency. Some of it, as a coach, I control. Some of it is on the players, to take ownership of this team and the things we want to accomplish. We did not show that tonight. Maybe we underestimated their fight."

Alabama guard Andrew Steele did not play for a second straight game because of a nagging ankle injury.

TideSports.com: Basketball recruiting 2014

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.



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