Bama bounced back from a horrific start to secure a solid victory over the Big 10 foe and improved to 8-3 on the season. Good teams are able to overcome adversity and find different ways to win games. The fact that we won this game fairly convincingly after falling behind by 14 early despite our leading scorer being non-existent most of the game, is actually a really good sign.
The Tide came out flat. They appeared unprepared for Penn State's physical style of play. We were being dominated on the boards, we were careless with the basketball, could not get a good look on offense, and allowed the Lions to build a 23-9 lead in the first 8 minutes of the game. CAJ called a timeout, and it appeared that Coach Pettway was really lighting a fire under some guys in the huddle. I'm not sure who said what to whom, but whatever the coaching staff did during that timeout, it worked. Alabama answered with a methodical 24-0 run and took a 6 point lead into the half.
We weren't able to put the game away and Penn State slowly chipped away to tie the game at 49 in the second half, but Donta answered with a couple of dunks and we quickly got the lead back up to 7 points where we more or less maintained it for the remainder of the game.
The biggest positive from this game, in my opinion, was the play of Donta Hall. It's one thing to dominate a much smaller Liberty team, but to lead the team in scoring with 17 points against arguably the best big man we've faced to date (I would argue the Arizona guy was probably better, but it's at least debatable), and to do so against a physical, defensive-minded team, was great to see. If Donta can play like this consistently, we'll be a difficult out in conference play.
Riley's play was a very pleasant surprise. He played solid defense, got some key rebounds, hit a big 3, and I thought his physical play on both ends was a spark to the rest of the team. I've been hard on him at times, but he's been though a ton during his career between injuries and health issues, and he's been resilient. He definitely has a role on this team, and this game was a perfect example of the coaching staff using him in the right way and him fulfilling that role.
We all thought Kira would struggle at some point, and against a more physical, mature defense he was held scoreless most of the night. Still, he stepped up in the final minutes and pushed the tempo and made some key baskets and free throws in the final minutes to close out the game. Most importantly, the team showed they can win without the 17 year old carrying the bulk of the load.
JP scored 13 points and had 5 rebounds despite only going 1-3 from 3 point range. It's great to see him contributing from the inside and out. T-Mack was also in double figures with 11 points, and he had nice starts to both halves. Herb scored 8 and played great defense as usual. He was 3 of 7 from the field and 2 of 4 from the line, baby steps, but he's moving in the right direction. We were only 13 of 21 from the line as a team, and that's why this game was closer than it needed to be.
Penn State has played a difficult schedule and thus is a top 60 RPI team, but I don't think they have the offensive firepower to be a real threat to make the tournament. Still, this was an encouraging win against a good defensive team, and I was pleased with our ability to make adjustments to the way the game was being called. Alex only played five minutes but I'm okay with that as I think this was a bad matchup for him. My only real gripe with the substitution patterns this game is that we had another scoring deficient lineup for a period in the second half, and I thought AJ's 7 minutes was a little too many. Even though Kira was struggling, he still should have played 32 minutes at a minimum. Overall, it was a solid win against a decent major conference team.
There was a decent crowd considering there were no students on campus and it was the Friday night of Christmas weekend. I would estimate a little over 5,000 were there, and only a few dozen Penn State fans were scattered throughout. It was arguably the best home atmosphere we've had this year, the crowd was loud at key moments and positive throughout.
Up next, we hit the road for our last game before conference play begins by travelling to Nacogdoches, TX to take on the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks Sunday at 5 p.m. SFA has established themselves as legitimate mid-major power by making the tournament 4 of the last 5 years and winning a game in two of those years. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU. Incidentally, on the off-chance someone is reading this in East Texas and would like to go to the game, I've got an extra ticket, free for a Bama fan, let me know in the comments.