The Alabama buzzsaw that tore through the first seven games of its SEC schedule came to a grinding halt Wednesday night in Coleman Coliseum, but the Tide clawed its way to a win that kept it undefeated in conference play.
Smothered by Mississippi State’s defense for almost the game’s first 30 minutes and having trailed by as many as 11 points, Alabama mounted a second-half comeback to beat the Bulldogs, 66-63, and improve to 8-0 in the league.
“I didn’t think we did a great job getting our guys ready to go,” coach Nate Oats said. “We didn’t do a good job attacking them. We didn’t start the game like we needed to. But I give our guys a lot of credit. In the second half, they found a way to get a win in a tough game.”
The victory was Alabama’s ninth in a row, extending the nation’s longest winning streak among high-major teams and the sixth-longest in Division I. Now 18-2, the Tide continued its best start since 1976-77, when it began 19- 2.
Mississippi State, which closely battled Alabama in Starkville last month before losing by 11 points, fell to 1-7 in the SEC and 12-8 overall.
“The SEC is a tough league,” Oats said. “That team has only won one game in the SEC, and you saw how tough it was to get a win.”
After outscoring its first seven SEC opponents by a combined 147 points, nothing came easily Wednesday night for Alabama. It fell into an early 10-2 hole and saw its initial comeback attempts thwarted by a scrappy Bulldogs team that made key defensive stops and responded with big baskets.
“Mississippi State was playing harder than we were to start the game,” Oats said.
Alabama made a 7-0 run late in the first half and another spanning into the second half, which both times pulled the Tide within three points of the visitors. But in each case, Mississippi State built back a double-digit advantage.
Alabama trailed, 36-29, at halftime after Dom Welch connected on a three pointer before the buzzer. It was the Tide’s first halftime deficit since it trailed Gonzaga on Dec. 17, its most recent loss.
“We just pointed out all the defensive screw-ups they had,” Oats said of the halftime locker room. “It was nothing profound. We just said you had to play harder. … If you don’t play harder than them, they’re a team that can beat you.
“We went right in and just started checking off everything that was wrong. Like, it was so much wrong that we just had the whole list — we were definitely a little animated with some of the screw-ups and why they did it, but it wasn’t necessarily a butt-chewing. I think this team is a pretty mature group that knew they weren’t playing as hard and as well as they needed to.”
Alabama’s defense clamped down as the second half progressed and it eventually took its first lead with 9:19 left. The Bulldogs briefly pulled back ahead, but Brandon Miller made his first three-pointer of the game to re-take the lead with 7:18 remaining.
Even though the Tide never lost that lead, the drama continued until the closing seconds. Mississippi State trailed by three points with a chance at the final shot, but Noah Gurley blocked one shot and Eric Reed’s final shot did not fall.
“I thought our guys did play harder in the second half,” Oats said. “Didn’t think we did a great job closing it.”
Mississippi State shot 56.7 percent and scored 26 points in the paint in the first half, but missed 14 of its final 19 shots, including eight in a row to help the Tide earn its first lead. The Bulldogs entered ranked 343rd in Division I in shooting only 28.5 percent on three pointers, but made three of its first nine Wednesday night. It then missed its final six as part of a 1-of-9 second half.
“If you’re going to win an SEC championship, you got to win some games that you don’t play your best,” Oats said. “And we figured out a way to get a win with, really, our defense in the second half is I think is what did it.”
The win was only the fourth by single digits for Alabama this season, and its first since beating Memphis by three points on Dec. 13.
“We haven’t had very many tight games, so it’s not the worst that we had to figure out how to win a close game,” Oats said.
Alabama had its own issues from beyond the arc, making only five of its 28 attempts. Its 17.9 percent rate was its worst since it shot 3-of-28 in its season opener against Longwood. Welch, who entered the game 2-of-18 on threes, made two of his three attempts. Mark Sears went 0-for-6 and Noah Clowney went 0-for-5, with Rylan Griffen (1-of-5), Miller (1-of-4) and Jahvon Quinerly (1-of-3) finding the net we threes.
“We couldn’t buy a bucket,” Oats said. “And still figured out how to beat a pretty good team. I know their record doesn’t say they’re good, but I still think they’re a good team. I think they’re going to upset some people. They play really hard.”
Quinerly finished with a team-high 14 points, his highest total since scoring 16 last March at LSU. He committed one turnover in 27 minutes, an errant pass in the second half that caused Oats to send him to the bench.
“We needed someone to step up and score the ball, and JQ has been able to score pretty well for us in the past,” Oats said. “We needed him tonight.”
Alabama travels Saturday to play Oklahoma in the SEC/Big 12 challenge, with a 1 pm CT tip off in Norman. A win would match Alabama’s 10-game winning streak during the 2020-21 season, which ended with a loss at Oklahoma.
“We got to get better,” Oats said. “We didn’t play as well as we needed to. Hopefully we learn the lessons we needed to after a win and get a little bit better on Saturday.”
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.