Auburn, Alabama streak into SEC West showdown

By  | 

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Suddenly, this Alabama-Auburn rematch isn't just about pride and winning the state.

The Crimson Tide and Tigers meet Tuesday night riding hot streaks that have helped bring cheer to once-forlorn seasons and resuscitated postseason hopes for both teams.

The Tigers (19-10, 8-6 Southeastern Conference) are currently second in the Western Division, which would mean a first-round tournament bye. They have won six of their last seven games.

The Crimson Tide (16-12, 6-8)) has won three straight since snapping a four-game skid, playing the team's best basketball since the resignation of coach Mark Gottfried and senior point guard Ronald Steele's decision to quit.

"They've had a hard time, as most would, with all that's happened during the season," Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. "But I think right now they've got a lot of that behind them. They've got some confidence. They've got chemistry."

Like Auburn, they also have momentum. Both teams are coming off big wins across the border. Auburn routed Mississippi State 76-58 while Alabama was even more dominant in a 90-69 win at Mississippi.

The Tigers have likely secured a spot at least in the NIT with their recent hot stretch. Their last five wins have all come by double digits.

A chance to reach 20 wins and keep their hopes alive of making the NCAA tournament for the first time during Lebo's five seasons are at stake entering the regular-season finales at Alabama and against No. 12 LSU.

"Auburn is obviously playing very well, as well as anybody in the league, maybe with the exception of LSU," Tide interim coach Philip Pearson said. "They've won on the road, they've won games in convincing fashion."

Auburn would secure a first-round SEC tournament bye if it can hold onto second place in the Western Division, but Mississippi State (7-7), the Tide and Mississippi (both 6-8) are also still in the running.
The Tigers would clinch a No. 2 seed with one more win or a loss by Alabama and Mississippi State.

"It'd be gigantic," Lebo said of the bye. "It's hard to win four in a row. It'd just be big. I think it would be more big for us because we're coming off a stretch where we've played four of five on the road. I think the extra day would be extra helpful to us."

The Tide could reach four straight SEC wins for the first time since 2005.

Senior Alonzo Gee has helped fuel the streak. He has averaged 20.3 points and 8.3 rebounds over the past three games while making 8-of-11 3-pointers.

Auburn held Gee to 10 points in their first meeting.

"He's been awesome down the stretch," Lebo said. "They've always been very, very talented and they've got some depth.

"They're averaging 88 points over the last three games. They're scoring from a variety of spots."

It will be the final home game for Tide seniors Gee and Brandon Hollinger.

Auburn won the first meeting 85-71 on Jan. 17, but Tide reserve Anthony Brock didn't get in the game. Brock, whose grandmother passed away late last Wednesday night, is coming off a 17-point effort at Ole Miss to help Alabama snap an 18-game SEC road losing streak.

The recent surge has at least given Pearson's team hope for an NIT bid if the Tide can keep it up against Auburn and Tennessee to close the regular season and fare well at the SEC tournament in Tampa.

"We really haven't talked about anything from a postseason standpoint, other than just a little bit here and there about Tampa," Pearson said. "We've kind of been in a one-day-at-a-time, one-game-at-a-time mode.

"Basketball is a tournament sport. It gives you one more opportunity to maybe do something."