Alabama hadn’t made a 3 all day when instincts took over. The Crimson Tide’s prized recruit finished off South Carolina with a smooth stroke from the top of the key. It capped the freshman-powered 63-57 win, pushing Alabama into the SEC tournament quarterfinals. The game typified the final few weeks of an unsightly yet effective run.
Lacey’s last-minute 3 put Alabama up by five in a mostly-vacant, hushed New Orleans Arena.
“Andrew Steele took on a double team and found me at the top of the key,” Lacey said. “And I just had to make them pay for leaving me open.”
The long-range jumper was a second-half anomaly for Alabama, now 21-10 this season. It was just the fifth of the half, though 15-for-19 free-throw shooting kept South Carolina from breaking a late-game tie.
Still, the Gamecocks (10-21) managed to muddy the waters once again. After trailing by as many as 14 in the first half, South Carolina had an occasional hot shooting hand. Reserve Brenton Williams made each of his three 3-point shots — two in a 25-second span — to tie the game at 53 with 6:39 left.
South Carolina was 8-for-24 from the perimeter, but RJ Rawson’s 3 to take the lead with 6:10 left bounced off and Alabama outscored the Gamecocks 13-6 to close the game.
Tide freshmen scored 15 of the final 17 in the closing 10:45 as South Carolina’s defense double-teamed and frustrated JaMychal Green. The senior from Montgomery had five turnovers, scored six of his 12 on free throws and took just four shots from the field.
In all, freshman had 37 of the 63 Alabama points. Nick Jacobs had eight of his 10 in the first half while Levi Randolph added nine and Rodney Cooper had four.
The game was played at a much different pace in the opening 20 minutes. It was Alabama unleashing a maddening defense that nearly made it a first-half blow out.
The full-court swarm helped force 17 South Carolina turnovers that became 15 points on the other end.
“That’s our game,” said Trevor Releford, the SEC leader in steals. “That’s what our players love to do and that’s our identity. We want to get you sped up and make you make quick decisions. It plays into our hands.”
Even after taking a 37-33 lead after runs of 8-0 and10-2, Alabama couldn’t finish off the league’s last place finisher. It was the same Gamecocks team that extended Alabama’s January losing streak to four with a 56-54 decision.
The freshmen and 24-for-29 overall free-throw shooting made the difference along with an intangible.
Green said the energy level needed to improve from that loss, and the emotionally-flat 60-51 beating it took from Ole Miss last Saturday. That mission was a success, but the next involves an added degree of difficulty.
Including the Valentine’s Day beating, Alabama coach Anthony Grant is winless in all three meetings with Florida and his former employer Billy Donovan.
The Gators (22-9) turned a halftime tie into a second-half blowout by scoring the first 16 points after the break. Alabama never recovered from that blow playing without the suspended JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell. Green is back and Mitchell’s punishment was extended through the end of the season.
Florida, which had the first-round bye, is thin on big men. Green is eager to see the injury-depleted lineup.
“If we get them into foul trouble, I think it will hurt them,” he said. “So we’re just going to attack like we did today and just take the good shots as open.”
Alabama scored 26 of its 37 first-half points from the shadow of the basket despite playing small. Center Moussa Gueye didn’t play for the first time in seven games and fellow 7-footer Carl Engstrom saw just three minutes against South Carolina.