By David Boclair
Special to The Tuscaloosa News
NASHVILLE – There have been a number of games already this season when Collin Sexton, Alabama’s sensational point guard, was the best player on the floor.
Tuesday at Vanderbilt, he might not have been the best freshman.
Not that he wasn’t good. Sexton was the Southeastern Conference’s leading scorer, finishing with a game-high 24 points capped by a pair of baskets in the final minute, both of which made it a one-point game.
His half-court heave at the buzzer was off the mark, though, and the Crimson Tide continued to alternate wins and losses as they have for more than a month. A 76-75 defeat at Memorial Gymnasium followed what looked like a breakthrough victory three days earlier over Texas A&M. The last time Alabama (9-5, 1-1 in the SEC) won two in a row was Nov. 21 and 24 (UT-Arlington, BYU).
“It would have been great had it gone in,” coach Avery Johnson said of Sexton’s final attempt. “But they deserved to win. We fought hard at the end.”
Vanderbilt (6-8, 1-1) took the lead for good with 4:16 to play in the first half when Saben Lee made two free throws and kicked off a stretch that made it clear Sexton was not the only freshman of note in the contest.
That was the start of a 12-0 Commodores run during which Lee, a 6-foot-2 guard out of Arizona, scored all of the points and had a pair of steals. Those 12 points were the product of two 3-pointers, four free throws and a layup. Lee had made just one 3-pointer in his previous five games (on 11 attempts) and four of 27 (14.8 percent) for the season.
His outburst answered a Sexton layup that tied it 31-31 and capped an 8-0 Crimson Tide run.
“I’m a competitive player,” Lee said. “I feel like the expectations are high and I want to meet them. … That was my first time seeing (Sexton).”
Ultimately, the two saw a whole lot of one another. Sexton did not start out defending Lee but ultimately was asked to try and slow down his first-year counterpart.
Lee finished with 23 points (one short of his career-high) with two assists and a team-high three steals. He was 7-14 from the floor, 2-4 on 3-pointers and led the Commodores with seven free throws (on nine attempts).
Sexton was 8-14 from the floor, 1-2 on 3-pointers and led the Crimson Tide with seven free throws (on seven attempts). He had a team-high five assists and three steals of his own.
“Both of those guys are blazing fast,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty serious matchup.
“(Lee) made some shots. … He had some confidence shooting his 3 (Tuesday) night. We did a much better job on him in the second half.”
By then, it was too late. Lee proved his point – and gave Vanderbilt the cushion it needed — with those 12 points at the end of the first half.
Alabama’s next game is at Georgia on Saturday (11 a.m., SEC Network).