TUSCALOOSA _ Although to many University of Alabama fans there's no such thing as a perfect day when football isn't in season, Saturday may have been pretty close.
Not only did the men's basketball team do something it had struggled with in Southeastern Conference play, pull away late and close out an opponent, for a 73-61 victory over rival Auburn, but Coleman Coliseum also celebrated last fall's gridiron victory against the Tigers with the traditional halftime awarding of the Foy-ODK Sportsmanship Trophy.
"We gave them one at Auburn," said senior guard Mikhail Torrance after snapping the Tide four-game losing streak to the Tigers. "To come out and be a senior and this be your last regular-season game, I really couldn't ask for anything more."
Ah, but the sellout crowd could, with 15,383 on their feet when the football players strolled out to midcourt, many wearing black T-shirts featuring a drawing of the crystal football.
"This is a very special honor for us to receive this award today, and I think this game sort of epitomized the kind of football team that we had this year, the way we had to come back," Coach Nick Saban announced. "The competitive character that we showed in the game was a real tribute to our entire organization, and these players here they did a fantastic job on the long road to the national championship."
"We also have a tremendous amount of respect for the University of Auburn and the great job their players and team did."
"We're pleased and happy that we're able to win this award two years in a row."
Saban concluded with something similar to what he said at the championship celebration two months ago: "We hope this is not the end, but the beginning," and "We'd like to be a dominant program and something you all can be proud of."
Back to basketball, where the Tide unveiled new gray uniforms, Alabama's second victory this week meant it caught Auburn in the SEC standings at 6-10, and after numerous tiebreakers earned the Western Division's No. 4 seeding for next week's conference tournament in Nashville.
Specifically, after head-to-head meetings (they split), division record (both 5-5), won-loss record vs. division opponents from one on down (still tied), and won-loss record vs. Eastern Division opponents from one on down it was finally was settled by whether Georgia or South Carolina ended up being a higher seed in the East. With the upset victory over Vanderbilt later Saturday the Gamecocks came out on top, and will play open the SEC Tournament against Alabama (16-14) at noon Thursday, with the winner getting Kentucky.
"We have a lot of confidence. I think a team like that can be a scary team to go into the tournament," said Torrance, who finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds and iced the win with four straight free throws and a quick basket following an Auburn technical foul. "We've given so many games away. I don't think we've played a team that has just beaten us. We've beaten ourselves. We finally, at the right point in the season, understand what it takes to close out games. This is the perfect time for us."
Auburn (15-16), meanwhile, will face Florida later Thursday. The winner plays Mississippi State.
"It was struggle for both teams offensively to score consistently," Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. "Offensively I didn't think we were very good tonight. We didn't shoot the ball very well."
The one exception to that was senior guard Tay Waller, who drained some impressive shots including four 3-pointers to score 22 points and top senior guard DeWayne Reed's 17. However, with 6-foot-10 senior center Brendon Knox getting into foul trouble and finishing with just six points over 15 minutes, Alabama won the game in the paint.
Not only did the Tide outscore the Tigers underneath, 44-28, it also had a 41-32 edge in rebounds. With senior forward Lucas Hargrove struggling on both ends, freshman forward Tony Mitchell had 16 points and seven rebounds and junior forward Chris Hines tallied 13 points and five rebounds.
"Those two guys were really the difference in the game," Lebo said.
Although Mitchell had yet another injury scare when he fell hard out of bounds after going for a loose ball, resulting in a sore wrist, it came right after he arguably had the highlight of season during the Tide's early 11-2 run. Following one of Auburn's 14 turnovers (compared to UA's 19), he caught senior guard Anthony Brock's pass in mid-air and with one motion dramatically slammed a reverse dunk over his head.
"He's a big-time player," Brock said. "I tried to tell him to stay focused and keep being aggressive. He can go at any time. I try to give him confidence because I know he can make big plays like that all the time."
Just as unique as the uniforms, Alabama honored Senior Day by starting uber-reserve Greg Cage, a fan favorite who netted an early basket and after being reinserted for the final seconds had a shot blocked but grabbed the rebound and scored again. In comparison, sophomore forward JaMychal Green, who was suspended for academic reasons during Wednesday's victory at South Carolina, didn't start and finished one point and three rebounds during his 14 minutes.
"Obviously a lot of emotion in the game today with it being Senior Day," Coach Anthony Grant said. "I told the guys after the game I thought there was great fight on our part.
"I thought our defense was outstanding today."
As for the new uniforms, he said: "We're one-and-oh in those uniforms, so maybe you'll see them again.