By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 10, 2002
ATLANTA -- It was a little scary down the stretch but the best team in the Southeastern Conference during the regular season has an opportunity to prove it's the best team in the SEC Tournament.
Relying on 21 points from junior center Kenny Walker, Alabama outlasted upstart South Carolina 65-57 in a semifinal at the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
"I just wanted to come out and play hard," Walker said. "I know teams will double down on Rod (Grizzard) and Ervin (Dudley), so I had to be the open man and that was my game plan."
The win ensured an all-West Division final today. Eighth-ranked Alabama (26-6) faces Mississippi State (25-7) at 1 p.m. for the championship.
The outcome was not decided until the final minute and a controversial call figured prominently in the end.
With 1:12 left, South Carolina guard Aaron Lucas hit a 3-pointer to tie it at 57. The Gamecocks regained possession after a Dudley miss, but Chuck Eidson got tangled with Maurice Williams and fell while dribbling, losing the ball to Grizzard. Grizzard passed to guard Antoine Pettway, who missed an open layup, but Walker dunked on the putback. Rolando Howell was called for a foul and after discussion among three officials, they ruled the foul occurred before Walker scored and let the play stand. The basket and subsequent free throw gave Alabama a 60-57 lead. South Carolina missed two 3-pointers and the Tide hit 3 of 4 free throws in the final 17 seconds to seal the win.
"One guy waved it off and the other two said it was a foul that occurred before that," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "But we're not going to focus on that. ... We played an exceptional basketball team in an exceptional basketball game today. I love to be in big games like that. That is what you practice for. I feel very good about our level of play and how we executed today."
Alabama led by 10 at the half, but South Carolina slowed the tempo in the second half, which the Tide players said frustrated them and allowed South Carolina back into the game.
Alabama kept its chance of earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament alive. Coach Mark Gottfried openly lobbied after the game.
"It depends on what happens (today), but if we were to win, regardless of what the polls say ... looking at the strength of the SEC, if a team were to win the regular season outright and then win the SEC tournament, I would have a hard time understanding why that team is not a No. 1 seed," Gottfried said. "Having said that, we've got to take care of business."
MISS. STATE 57, LSU 51: LSU's improbable run ended with an almost 4-minute drought that cost the Tigers a shot at playing in the championship.
Jason Wilson's putback and free throw gave LSU a 51-50 lead with 3:47 left.
But the Bulldogs defense clamped down and LSU was outscored 7-0 in the final 3:27. The Gamecocks blew two offensive possessions by turning the ball over late.
"They thrive on their athleticism and making other teams turn it over, and they were better at that today than we were and that was the difference in the game," coach John Brady said.
Trailing 53-51, South Carolina guard Torris Bright took an inbound pass, but lost the ball out of bounds with 57 seconds left. The turnover led to Marckell Patterson's 10-foot shot off the glass and a 55-51 lead for the Bulldogs.
On LSU's next possession, junior forward Ronald Dupree (eight points, six rebounds) turned the ball over with 22 seconds left, ending hopes for a Gamecocks comeback.
"I think we played hard and it was a great battle," Dupree said. "It was one of those games where whoever gets the loose balls and steals at the end of the game is going to win it. It was a great defensive game and they just made the plays at the end of the game to win it."
Mississippi State (25-7) shot 35 percent from the field and 5-of-21 from 3-point range. LSU (18-14) shot 39 percent and was 3-of-13 on 3s.
Antonio Hudson led LSU with 16 points. Center Mario Austin, who dominated in a win over Florida on Friday, led Mississippi State with 17 points and eight rebounds.
The Bulldogs take a seven-game winning streak into today's championship.
"We are awfully happy to be playing in the championship game in the best conference in the country," coach Rick Stansbury said.
"Sometimes you just have to find a way to win when you don't play your best and I think today was an example of that."