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February 23, 2013

HURT: Best thing Alabama can do is finish strong

No single loss, no matter how woeful the opponent or lopsided the score, knocks a basketball team out of the NCAA Tournament. Kansas lost to TCU, after all, but the Jayhawks are safely in the tournament.

So it isn't just Alabama's wrenching triple-overtime loss in Baton Rouge that has the Crimson Tide perched on the outside looking in.

It is just that Alabama had used up its margin for error.

The LSU loss wasn't the worst of the season, by any stretch. The effort was good, especially for a team that is chronically short-handed and currently banged up.

Once two starters fouled out, UA coach Anthony Grant was essentially down to six players, none of whom were a particularly good match for LSU center Johnny O'Bryant. Trevor Releford had the game of his career.

After losing a 10-point lead at the end of regulation, Alabama made clutch shots and clutch free throws to force two more overtimes.

So in the end, it wasn't the worst game of Alabama's season. It was just the most frustrating.

A win would not have propelled Alabama into the NCAA Tournament. It would have just given them a better overall body of work when the NCAA gets down to evaluating teams in the middle of March.

Any overtime game, in any sport, has a hundred moments that affect the outcome.

Saturday's game in Baton Rouge was no different. Alabama made mistakes. LSU made mistakes. The officials made mistakes.

The Tigers ended up grabbing key offensive rebounds, and hitting some key 3-pointers, and they did not give up facing a 10-point deficit. So their win was deserved.

Alabama had its chances, by virtue of its own good play. But whether it was fatigue or foul trouble or a failure to concentrate at key moments, UA could not steal a win.

What Grant has to do now is convince his team that the year isn't over. Beating Auburn on Tuesday night won't erase the Tiger win last month, but it will be a far sight better than a season sweep by AU would be for the Crimson Tide program.

Road wins at Florida next Saturday or at Ole Miss in the last contest away from home won't catapult UA into the NCAA field, but they would make a statement for this team.

There is one huge parallel between this Crimson Tide team and Grant's second Alabama team in 2011. Both spent the entire SEC regular season trying to overcome a terrible December.

The 2011 team is remembered fondly by Alabama fans, even though it missed an NCAA bid, because it squeezed just about every ounce it could out of its SEC run (and played defense like demons).

This year's team is more problematic. Expectations, fairly or not, were a little higher. The losses have been more perplexing, not the ones at Missouri or LSU, but some of them.

There is some fan frustration - not an overwhelming number, nothing close to a majority and none with the ear of the administration - but a vocal few, which all programs have.

So the best thing this Alabama team can do is close strong, take a commando attitude into Nashville for the league tournament and not assume that a door slammed shut on Saturday, even if chances are that things will turn out that way.

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

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