Whoever handed out the hard hats in the student section knew what they were doing.
In a game that often bore more resemblance to a factory graveyard shift than the fast-paced shootout that was expected, Alabama could have cared less about the art, only the outcome, grinding out an 83-64 victory over No. 4-ranked Auburn and handing the Tigers their first loss of the season in the process.
The Crimson Tide led just 42-40 with 14:50 to play but behind a strong performance by sophomore guard Kira Lewis, who scored 17 of his game-high 25 points in the second half, Alabama pulled away to raise its record to 9-7, 2-2 in the SEC.
Herbert Jones added a double-double for the Crimson Tide, scoring 14 points and adding 12 rebounds.
The Crimson Tide was especially effective from the foul line in the second half, making 25 of its 30 free throws in the final 20 minutes. That production, plus a crucial Lewis 3-pointer with 4:29 remaining, helped Alabama pull away from a Tiger team that struggled to find an offensive rhythm for most of the evening.
“I never go in saying we have to shoot a certain number of threes,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “I never say any player has to get a certain number of shots. The defense dictates the flow (of the offense).
“We’d been making 10 or 11 threes a game for a stretch, so teams are going to try and run us off the line. But if they do that, they give up something. Kira got to the rim with no rim protection at all when they tried to drive us off the line.
“They’ve got to pick their poison.”
The Tigers (15-1) shot just 20 of 63 from the floor and turned the ball over 21 times. Freshman Isaac Okoro led AU with 13 points and center Austin Wiley had a 10-point, 13-rebound double-double.
Both teams struggled offensively in the first half but Alabama shot the ball somewhat more consistently — 41.2 percent compared to just 30 percent for AU — and managed to steadily build a lead that reached 14 points, 36-22, with 1:07 remaining before intermission. But Okoro hit an open 3-pointer and followed with a steal and dunk to spark a five-point Tiger run, trimming the Alabama advantage to 36-27 at halftime.
The 27 points matched Auburn’s lowest production in any half thus far this season.
“To beat a good team like Alabama on their home floor, you’ve got to be very good and we weren’t close,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “We were really sloppy offensively — spacing, timing, feel. We don’t shoot it well enough to make up for it when we don’t space well.”
Oats said that Alabama did remind his team of comments made by Auburn forward Anfernee McLemore about Coleman Coliseum being his “favorite place to play because I like the look of disappointment on their faces when we win.”
“We made sure our players saw it,” Oats said. “It was the last thing on the screen before we came out on the floor.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for McLemore. He’s a great player. He plays hard. I didn’t mind him adding a little bit of spice to the rivalry. I kind of leave it out there myself a little bit.”
Alabama will be back at home Saturday, hosting Missouri in SEC play.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Cecilhurt