Amid a difficult week, No. 2 Alabama did just enough to take care of business on the road Wednesday at South Carolina.
The Crimson Tide will try to remain focused on basketball Saturday afternoon when they host Arkansas for a Southeastern Conference contest in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Saddled with questions surrounding star Brandon Miller and his association with former teammate Darius Miles, who was charged with murder in a shooting death, the Crimson Tide (24-4, 14-1 SEC) kept the freshman sensation in the lineup against the Gamecocks.
Alabama needed every bit of the 6-foot-9 forward’s talents in overcoming the feisty Gamecocks.
En route to a career-high 41 points, Miller forced overtime with a late hoop. Then the Antioch, Tenn., native sank the game-winning basket in the final second of the 78-76 win as Alabama stayed atop the SEC standings.
Shortly before tip-off in Columbia, S.C., the University of Alabama issued a statement stating that Miller, currently averaging 19.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, would play and called him “an active member of our team.”
Then Miller, the nation’s top-scoring freshman, went 14-for-25 from the field and canned 6 of 13 attempts from 3-point range. He added eight rebounds, three steals and two blocks.
To little surprise, no Alabama player was made available to the media afterward. Coach Nate Oats — who received criticism Tuesday for saying Miller’s involvement was “wrong place, wrong time” — had high praise for the way the potential NBA lottery pick handled himself.
“One of the most mentally tough kids I’ve ever coached,” Oats said. “Not surprised he came ready to play and played well tonight. It could’ve been a distraction. But Brandon showed up.”
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman hopes his Razorbacks (19-9, 8-7) can duplicate their sharp-shooting performance from Tuesday against Georgia, though even a similar showing might not be enough in Tuscaloosa.
Against the Bulldogs, Arkansas set a team record for its best shooting night in an SEC game, connecting on 37 of 58 shots (63.8 percent). It made a season-high 11 of 20 treys (55 percent) and handed out 26 assists, the fifth most ever by a Hogs team in conference play.
Like the Crimson Tide’s Miller, prized freshman Nick Smith Jr. led his squad and poured in a career best with 26 points. The Jacksonville, Ark., product has battled knee problems all season and has played in just nine games after a long rehab stint.
However, in his best performance, Smith torched the Bulldogs on 9-of-14 shooting, including 5 of 8 from distance, and dished out two assists in his third time topping 20 points.
“One thing about me is I always want to play basketball, that’s the only thing,” Smith said after Arkansas won for the seventh time in its past nine SEC contests. “Whatever anybody said going through that process of just going to rehab and trying to get back, my whole mindset was to come back and help my team get some wins. We got one today and have another big (game) Saturday.”
Smith did not play in the first meeting against then-No. 4 Alabama on Jan. 11 in Fayetteville, Ark., when Mark Sears scored 26 points to lead the Tide to an 84-69 victory.
–Field Level Media