Alabama stepped up its game just in time for Southeastern Conference play.
The Crimson Tide has reeled off four straight wins and started 3-0 in SEC games for the first time in 24 years entering Saturday’s visit to rival Auburn.
Alabama (8-3, 3-0) has turned things around since a 73-71 loss to Western Kentucky, including an eight-point road win over No. 9 Tennessee.
It started with a romp over East Tennessee State when second-year coach Nate Oats benched senior guard John Petty Jr., who wasn’t in the arena for the game. Then came the return from Christmas break and what Oats called the Tide’s best practices of the year — along with perhaps a better mindset for Petty.
“I think the guys realized that if you play for each other and you’re playing for the right reasons that good things happen,” Oats said. “If you watch our energy in the East Tennessee State game, there was a different vibe about the team. There was a different energy. Guys were really pulling for each other.
“There’s a saying when the tide rises all the boats rise.”
The Tide has been rising lately heading into the matchup with Auburn (6-5, 0-3). Double-digit wins over Mississippi and Florida were sandwiched around the 71-63 upset of the Volunteers.
Alabama, which hadn’t started 3-0 in SEC games since winning its first eight league matchups in the 1986-87 season, has outscored its last four opponents by an average of 14 points. The Tide shot 29.3% from 3-point range in the first seven games and 37.8% since then.
“They’re all locked in, and they’re playing really well together,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “They’re guarding like crazy, and I think they’ve got a belief …
“They’ve got to look around and go who’s better than us in the league?”
Alabama has one of its better shooting teams, athletic guards who can drive to the basket and four players averaging between 12.4 and 13.3 points per game.
But point guard Jahvon Quinerly, a Villanova transfer, missed the Florida game and didn’t practice Friday with what Oats described as a “medical condition.”
The Tide still beat the Gators 86-71 without its No. 2 scorer. Oats said Petty is more focused since missing one game and coming off the bench against Mississippi.
The guard, who Oats considers one of college basketball’s best shooters, returned for his senior season hoping to improve his NBA draft stock. He’s averaging 12.6 points.
“He came back to play his way into the first round,” Oats said. “Well, there’s a lot of pressure and stress that comes with having to perform at an NBA first-round level. Sometime that pressure and stress you put on yourself backfires and everything implodes.
“I think just get back to playing hard and helping the team win and playing the right way. I think he’s having a lot more fun.”
So is the team.
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