TUSCALOOSA _ It had been a long time coming for University of Alabama redshirt sophomore Andrew Steele, but oh did it feel good.
There had been some nervous fans at sold out Coleman Coliseum during Saturday night's opening moments of the second half against LSU. The Crimson Tide had been struggling offensively and was ahead only 32-29 when the forward/guard reentered the game with 16:50 remaining and UA had yet to produce any bench points or 3-pointers.
Through a JaMychal Green layup and Steele steal heading into the media timeout there were still no signs of the impending 24-4 stretch, but then everything changed. His 3-pointer followed by short jump shot off a hard feed from senior guard Charvez Davis and the Tigers were never in the game again.
"Andrew is a big part of the team," Green said after the 70-46 rout. "I was excited for him to have a big game tonight, and I was excited when he was excited for him to come off surgery and come back to the team.
"We know what he's capable of and is starting to show it."
Wednesday evening, when Mississippi State visits the Capstone fresh off its 71-64 victory over No. 24 Florida, the two players who have only recently rejoined their teams could have a big say in who wins the rematch from Jan. 8.
While Steele was playing in just his seventh game of the season after having arthroscopic procedures on both knees in October, Bulldogs guard Dee Bost scored 24 against the Gators in his sixth game after missing five due to academic issues in addition to a nine-game NCAA suspension for failing to pull out of last year's NBA Draft before the appropriate deadline.
Bost scored 14 in his season debut when Alabama blew out MSU at "The Hump," 75-57. Forward Renardo Sidney, fresh off another suspension due to getting in a fight with co-captain Elgin Bailey (who subsequently left the team), finished with just two points with his coach saying that conditioning was obviously a problem.
"Obviously I think Mississippi State is a better team than the one we saw the first game of the conference and I think we're a different team as well," said Coach Anthony Grant, adding about Bost: "He's a terrific player. He's an outstanding point guard. He's done a great job providing that team with great leadership, great energy, scoring, assists. He just makes plays."
Steele played just six minutes during that first meeting, but had otherwise been averaging 13.4 before staying in for 18 against LSU - his most since having a career-high 30 against Florida State on Nov. 27, 2009, days before being shut down for the rest of last season with a stress fracture.
"Last year wasn't as frustrating because we didn't know what it was," Steele said. "It was just the waiting-out-process to see if it would heal."
It wasn't until about the second week of fall practice that Steele knew something else wasn't right, and potentially more problematic. He hoped the knee pain was just part of the rust coming off only it kept getting worse.
"It was pretty bad, it was real painful," he said. "In my left one I had a cartilage bruise and I had some tissue that kept getting caught under my knee cap in both knees, and on the right I had real bad tendonitis.
"Before they went in we didn't know what the problem was, the MRI didn't show anything significant. We were kind of hoping it wasn't anything too serious, but the worst part of it was not knowing what it was."
Roughly a month after having the scopes, Steele returned against Toledo on Jan. 3, and Alabama has lost only once since (13-7, 5-1 SEC).
"He's getting more comfortable in what he can do, the way he can impact our team," Grant said. "He was very, very good in the last game."
Steele's final line against the Tigers was 3 for 5, 1 of 2 from 3-point range, for seven points with four rebounds, one assist and the steal.
He's probably going to need a comparable performance for Alabama to get past Mississippi State again, with the Bulldogs (11-9, 3-3) essentially in a must-win situation to have any chance of catching the Tide in the West Division.
"I know they're going to come back tough, especially after being them at their place," Steele said. "They're going to come with a chip on their shoulder, but I think we'll be ready for it."