BATON ROUGE, La. | If it had just been a case of one player stepping up, Rodney Cooper did it. But the University of Alabama basketball team needed four players to step up on Saturday, and wound up short-handed at the end.
With three starters - power forward JaMychal Green, point guard Trevor Releford and small forward Andrew Steele, who had replaced the previously suspended Tony Mitchell in the lineup - suspended just hours before game time for a "violation of team rules," Alabama relied on freshmen and reserves and fell to LSU, 67-58.
Alabama scored just 15 points in the first half, but Cooper exploded for 22 of his career-high 28 points after halftime and UA at least made LSU work for the win. But Justin Hamilton's 21 points and 17 by freshman Johnny O'Bryant gave the Tigers (14-10, 4-6 Southeastern Conference) just enough impetus to win.
UA coach Anthony Grant said he made the decision to suspend the three players on Friday night based on "a violation of team rules" unrelated to the trip to Baton Rouge. He added that he was "very disappointed" but could only "coach the guys that were available."
Because of the suspensions, Alabama started four freshmen and junior reserve Ben Eblen, a lineup with a combined scoring average of 22.7 points per game. The Crimson Tide's offensive limitations became apparent quickly as LSU jumped to a 7-0 lead and built its advantage to 31-15 by intermission.
Alabama shot just 30.4 percent in the half, went 0-for-7 from the 3-point line and was outrebounded 21-13 by the Tigers.
As the second half began, though, Alabama found the energy to open on a 12-0 run and cut the LSU lead down to four points, 31-27, with 15:12 to play. Powered by Cooper's scoring explosion, UA twice cut the Tiger lead to three points but could never pull even.
Still, the Crimson Tide managed to keep things interesting almost until the final minute, not succumbing until an Anthony Hickey 3-pointer with 1:11 remaining gave LSU a 60-51 lead which the Tigers maintained at the foul line down the stretch.
"In the first half, we didn't play the way we are committed to play," Grant said. "Our energy level was better in the second half, and we got the style of play in our favor. But we also didn't make some plays that were there for us to make, plays that could have pulled us even and. Maybe changed the game in our favor."
Cooper's 28 points surpassed the previous season high for UA, Mitchell's 26 points against Wichita State.
"I wasn't worried about the points or the minutes," Cooper said. "I was just trying to stay aggressive and play the way Coach Grant told me to play."
Alabama (16-8, 5-5 SEC) will be back in action Tuesday night, hosting Florida at 6 p.m.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.