TUSCALOOSA _ Only one word could adequately describe Saturday evening's game at Coleman Coliseum, intense.
The crowd was intense. The defense was very intense. Perhaps the only thing that was more intense was the University of Alabama men's basketball team during the final minutes.
Led by sophomore forward Tony Mitchell, who had a career-high 27 points, the Crimson Tide dominated when the game was on the line to pull out a 69-56 victory and in the process clinched its first SEC West title since 2005.
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"It was good to clinch it at home, before our fans," Mitchell said. "We just can't look at this like it's over. We have to keep going, we have a couple more games and we have the SEC Championship."
Freshman point guard Trevor Releford scored 17 points and junior forward JaMychal Green added 16 points and nine rebounds before a sellout crowd of 15,383. Alabama (18-8, 10-2 SEC) avenged its only division loss this season, remained unbeaten at home at 14-0 and moved a half-game ahead of Florida (9-2) for the league's best record with the Gators visiting LSU on Sunday.
"I thought it was a tremendous effort," Coach Anthony Grant said. "I told the guys after the game, the last two weeks going Thursday-Saturday it's extremely difficult. I'm really thankful, I thought we had a greet atmosphere."
Although the coach had some concerns that the Tide might wilt some in the second half, especially with Arkansas (16-10, 5-7 SEC) having an extra day to prepare after beating Florida A&M on Wednesday, the exact opposite occurred.
After Arkansas took a 49-44 lead with 11:58 remaining, it made only two of its final 13 shots, while Alabama took control with a 13-2 run. The rally gained momentum with Releford's 3-pointer to tie the game, and was fueled by Mitchell's monstrous one-handed dunk five minutes later when Alabama started to pull away for good.
"The defender didn't know what to do," Releford said about his two-on-one pass to Mitchell, who couldn't help but be reminded of the dunks he used to do off a trampoline as a kid.
"I used to get a whoopin' taking my basketball goal across the yard, ruining the grass," said Mitchell, who couldn't help himself when asked how the view was from the top of Coleman Coliseum. "It's pretty nice up there. There are a lot of lights."
Arkansas' last gasp may have been shortly after a pair of junior Rotnei Clarke free throws to pull within 59-54, when Mitchell raced all the way back to make a steal from the guard. For good measure, he scored the next points on a layup and then fed an alley-oop to Green to put the game away.
"We dug down deep, somewhere around that eight-minute mark," Grant said. "I think at that point they had a plus-six advantage on the backboard."
That wasn't the only indication that Arkansas was treating the game as essentially a must win.
Even with Mitchell's last-second basket to tie the game at 31 it was the first time this season Alabama didn't have a halftime lead at home, and at times Clarke looked almost unstoppable while connecting on four 3-pointers, to go with 9 of 11 free throws for 21 points. Alabama's bench also didn't score a single point.
But unlike the 70-65 loss Jan. 18 in Fayetteville, when the Razorbacks only had nine turnovers, this time they committed 18 and the Crimson Tide transformed them into 25 points. Alabama also had an 11-2 edge in steals.
"Alabama deserves the credit," Coach John Pelphrey said. "Alabama was just better than us down the stretch."
Otherwise, a lot of the postgame talk was about Mitchell, who has scored at leas 20 points in four of the last five gaames and was credited with three of the Tide's four dunks to give him 50 on the season. Overall, Alabama leads opponents in dunks 102-22.
"You can tell he's worked on his game a lot," Arkansas forward Glenn Bryant said. "He's grown a lot from last year to this year. This year he dribbles better and shoots a lot better. He plays hard every possession."
"When Tony's on like that, with anyone on our team, I'm going to keep trying to find him," Releford said. "He's so far above the rim, that's how he scores baskets. He outworks his opponent."