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Alabama 88, LSU 82: Herbert Jones breathes life back into bubble hopes

Sparked by a legendary effort from a one-handed Herbert Jones, Alabama raced out to an 18-point lead and then held on down the stretch to knock off No. 25 LSU 88-82 at Coleman Coliseum on Saturday.

What did we learn today?: No one is going to play tougher than Jones, no matter how many extra limbs you spot them. A surprise starter in only his second game back from a broken wrist, Jones was essentially denied the use of his left hand thanks to a heavily-padded protective sleeve roughly the size of a 2-liter bottle. But not only did he play 29 minutes, Jones collected a career-high 17 rebounds against LSU’s superior front court. What’s more he had three assists, two blocks, a steal and drew at least three charges to go along with a pair of layups. And with 1:37 left and the Crimson Tide clinging to a two-point lead, he sank a pair of single-handed free throws that sent the home crowd into a frenzy and gave Bama enough of an energy jolt to make it to the finish line a winner.

Jones was the most prominent example, but Bama had several other players step up with maximum efforts in what amounted to a must-win game. Kira Lewis scored 18 of his 27 points after halftime to lead all scorers and Jaden Shackelford was hot on his heels with 26, deftly switching to rim drives as his 3-point touch started to fade down the stretch. And very quietly Galin Smith kept LSU honest in the paint on defense, grabbed a half-dozen rebounds and improbably scored 10 points, including going 6-for-7 at the foul line despite averaging 37 percent coming into Saturday. Nate Oats was very clear with his team that they needed this game as the foundation for any late-season charge into NCAA tournament consideration, and at least for one day his team showed what it could do at its best.

What was the best part of the game?: Fifty seasons after he became the first African-American to receive an athletic scholarship at Alabama, Wendell Hudson was honored at halftime as his No. 20 jersey became the first to be retired in any sport at the Capstone. It was a richly-deserved moment for a true pioneer in school and state history, but it was also a building block for a program that has been slow to capitalize on its underrated history. Hudson averaged 19.2 points and 12 rebounds per game, twice was all-SEC and was the conference player of the year as a senior before being drafted by the Chicago Bulls. Alabama was 4-20 the year it recruited Hudson out of Birmingham’s Parker High and 8-18 while he toiled away on the freshman team under the rules of the day. By his last season Bama set a school record with 22 wins, paving the way for an all-black starting five the next season and the first of three consecutive SEC titles.

Who was the star?: Lewis hasn’t always shined in matchups against other star point guards, but he more than held his own against Skyler Mays. The sophomore from Meridianville was 10-for-18 from the floor, 4-for-6 from 3-point range and tied for game-high honors with four assists and three steals over 36 minutes.

What were the biggest concerns?: Lewis showed how much he meant to Alabama once he picked up his third and fourth fouls in a 14-second span and had to leave the game with 6:00 left and the Tide up 71-59. LSU hadn’t shown much interest in defense until then, but the Tigers pounced on Bama’s suddenly-disorganized ball handlers to spark a 19-8 run that shaved the lead down to a single point with 95 seconds remaining. The Crimson Tide only had nine turnovers all day, but three of them came over the final six minutes. It only took a few seconds of inattention to put a desperately-needed win in jeopardy.

What’s next?: Texas A&M visits Tuscaloosa on Wednesday as Bama tries to climb back above .500 in league play. Tipoff on the SEC Network is at 6 p.m. Central.

Follow Chris DePew on Twitter @TideFansChris

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