TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP)—Everything just opened up for Ronald Steele.
He drove down the right side of the court, saw Richard Hendrix drift to the opposite side along with a defender, then accelerated into the lane for a layup with 6.7 seconds left to give No. 18 Alabama an 80-79 win over Mississippi State on Wednesday night.
“I expected to have to force a tough shot because they were playing good defense all night,” Steele said. “Richard was playing so well they were so concerned about not letting him get the ball.”
Instead, Hendrix turned into a decoy. Steele, who had been dumping the ball inside to Hendrix and Jermareo Davidson all night, blew past Jamont Gordon after taking the inbounds pass and driving the length of the court.
Barry Stewart’s 3-point try at the other end fell well short and was partially blocked by Hendrix as time expired.
Ben Hansbrough had hit the second of two free throws with 14 seconds to play to give the Bulldogs a 79-78 lead, setting up Steele’s game-winner for the Crimson Tide (18-5, 5-4 Southeastern Conference).
“It was a breakdown on my part,” said Gordon, who had a career-high 27 points and nine rebounds. “He got me backpedaling and he just drove the ball past me.”
That wasn’t what the Bulldogs (12-10, 3-6), winless in SEC road games the past two seasons, were expecting.
“Coach tried to tell us they were going to get the ball to Hendrix inside,” Dietric Slater said. “We were expecting them to get the ball to Hendrix because he was hitting everything in the paint.”
Hendrix made 9-of-12 shots for 22 points and had 10 rebounds and three blocked shots for the Tide. Davidson had 17 points and 11 boards. Mykal Riley scored 14 points while Steele had 10 points, seven assists and no turnovers.
The Tide trailed 77-72 after Charles Rhodes’ basket with 1:24 left. Then, a struggling Riley—who started 1-for-8 from 3-point range—hit his second and Rhodes made 1-of-2 free throws with 37 seconds to play for a 78-75 lead.
Riley answered again, hitting a tying 3-pointer from the right corner 20 seconds later. Both teams called their final timeouts after that.
Hansbrough drew a foul from Brandon Hollinger before crossing midcourt for the Bulldogs , who have lost four of five games.
Slater had 13 points and Hansbrough 10 for Mississippi State, which held a 47-41 rebounding edge despite a size disadvantage.
It was still another frustrating loss for the Bulldogs.
“That’s the fourth game in SEC play we had the ball with a chance to win or tie it on the last shot,” coach Rick Stansbury said. “It’s my responsibility, not the players’ but mine, to win close basketball games. This team hasn’t found a way to win close basketball games.”
He wasn’t surprised at who made the last play, though.
“We had our best defender on him,” Stansbury said. “Steele’s the guy that always steps up and beats you.”
Hendrix said he just wanted to give Steele room to work.
“I felt like it wouldn’t make any sense for me to stay over there and get in his way,” he said. “I had confidence the whole time that he would read that just perfectly and that’s what happened.”
Steele, a preseason All-America point guard, has been slowed by ankle and knee injuries all season. He didn’t look anything short of full-speed on that last shot.
“He just made a great, great play,” Gottfried said. “That was Ron Steele creating a play that you wanted him to make. We absolutely wanted the ball in his hands.”
The Bulldogs rode a 15-4 run to a 65-59 lead, capped by Gordon’s fast-break dunk off a steal and long pass by Slater with 11:01 left. Then, Mississippi State had four missed shots and a shot clock violation on its next four possessions, allowing Alabama to close the gap again.
The Bulldogs led 42-41 at the half even though No. 2 scorer Rhodes was a nonfactor. He picked up two fouls in the first 2:24 and attempted only one shot in the half.
Rhodes didn’t score until making 1-of-2 free throws with 16:16 to play in the game and finished with eight points. He also didn’t get another foul.
Alabama’s Alonzo Gee fouled out with 2:35 left and only had five points.
Both teams had plenty of success at the line to make up for matching 27-percent efforts from 3-point range.
Mississippi State made 21-of-29 free throws. Alabama was 19-of-25.
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