Alabama pushes past Mississippi State for top-25 win in SEC opener

Alabama beat another top-25 team Wednesday night, but it will hope some of what happened in The Hump will stay in The Hump.

The Tide’s 78-67 win over No. 21-ranked Mississippi State was the defensive battle that coach Nate Oats expected, with Alabama shaking off a slow start to pull away in the second half. Eighth-ranked Alabama improved to 11-2 by opening its SEC schedule with a road victory in Starkville’s sold-out Humphrey Coliseum.

“They’re a tough team. They make it difficult on you,” Oats said. “I thought our effort was really good. We made some tough plays, got on the floor. I was proud of our guys.”

Aided by its defense and early three-pointers, Mississippi State briefly led midway through the first half. The two top-25 teams combined for only 18 points in the first 10 minutes, with scoring picking up as the game progressed. Alabama led by four points at halftime, 34-30, then outscored MSU in the second half, 44-37.

“We went on the road against a top-25 team and were able to come out with a pretty convincing win,” Oats said of the final result.

Oats wanted his team to cut down on its turnovers, and that didn’t happen. The Tide turned the ball over 19 times, keeping Mississippi State within striking range until late. The Bulldogs balanced Alabama’s offensive sloppiness by missing half of its free throws, finishing 18-of-36.

Three timely three-pointers in the final nine minutes by Alabama freshman Brandon Miller, who finished with 19 points, ultimately kept the Bulldogs at bay. He added 11 rebounds for his third double-double of the season.

Miller finished 5-of-10 from beyond the arc, combining with Mark Sears’ 4-of-8 three-point shooting and team-high 20 points against Mississippi State’s defense. Under first-year coach Chris Jans, MSU entered third in the country in allowing less than 53 points per game.

Mississippi State made 10 of its final 11 free throws after starting 8-of-25. Most of those misses came from leading scorer Tolu Smith, who finished 3-of-15 from the line. Smith finished with five points on 1-of-7 shooting from the field.

“We didn’t [foul Smith] intentionally,” Oats said. “We were trying to get stops. We were upset with our guys on some of those plays. We didn’t think they made the right play. They fouled him and it ends up working out because he goes 0-for-2 and they don’t get any points on the possession.”

Smith played only nine minutes in the second half and went to the bench for the final time with more than five minutes remaining.

“He’s one of the best players in the league, and they didn’t play him,” Oats said. “A big part of our game plan going in was how we are going to guard Tolu. … I didn’t think we did a great job on Tolu, to be honest with you. I know he was 1-for-7, but we probably fouled him a little too much.”

Despite his struggles at the line and from his 6-foot-11 forward, the Bulldogs were unexpectedly able to score on three pointers. Entering the night 311th in three-point percentage (30.5), MSU shot 38 percent (9-of-24).

“We kind of overcame a couple of their guys having really good shooting nights. KeShawn Murphy went 3-for-3 in the first half,” Oats said of the second-year forward from Birmingham. “Different things went different ways, but our guys stepped up.”

Wednesday was the seventh time in 13 games this season that Alabama has turned the ball over at least 19 times. The Tide entered averaging the 10th-most turnovers per game, 16.9, in Division I.

Jahvon Quinerly was responsible for four of Alabama’s turnovers in 11 minutes on the court, with his playing time limited by three first-half fouls. Quinerly, though, shot 2-of-4 from beyond the arc for his six points. Starting guard Jaden Bradley had four turnovers but added seven assists and seven points in 25 minutes.

“I thought Jaden Bradley did a great job running the team,” Oats said. “I thought he was aggressive against their press.”

Forward Nick Pringle, a junior college transfer, had 10 points for Alabama after a season-high 14 in his last game against Jackson State. Another newcomer to the front court, freshman Noah Clowney, had 12 points and eight rebounds.

Alabama was called for a season-high 25 fouls, with Miller joining Quinerly in logging three before halftime. Charles Bediako was whistled for three fouls in the second half.

“I thought our depth really helped us,” Oats said.

Guard Dom Welch made his debut for Alabama after missing the first 12 games with a calf injury, playing nine minutes. The graduate transfer from St. Bonaventure missed a pair of three pointers but grabbed two rebounds.

“I thought his defense was great,” Oats said. “Obviously he’s a little rusty. Got some threes. He’s gonna make threes. He’s a really good shooter. He’s only practiced one day — yesterday was the first day he’s practiced in a month-and-a-half, or whatever. We assumed he’d be a little rusty on offense, but I was glad I was able to get him nine minutes. We’ll try to increase his minutes as he gets more comfortable.”

Junior forward Darius Miles, who has averaged 6.7 minutes this season, was not on the bench for the game. Oats said Miles was dealing with a “personal matter” and not an injury.

“We’re supporting him through it and trying to help him through it,” he said. “We’re not quite sure how long he’ll be out.”

Alabama has New Year’s weekend off before hosting Ole Miss next Tuesday in Coleman Coliseum.

Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.

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