The question was how would the University of Alabama men's basketball team not only deal with the hangover from Thursday night's controversial loss at Vanderbilt but also with the quick turnaround of Ole Miss visiting Saturday afternoon.
For one half, the Crimson Tide was spectacular. The other it was outscored but did enough to pull out a 74-64 victory before a sellout crowd of 15,383.
"I wanted us to be the aggressor tonight," said Coach Anthony Grant after the Crimson Tide (16-8, 8-2 SEC) remained unbeaten at Coleman Coliseum and still controls its destiny in pursuit of conference's regular-season title.
"There was a little fatigue," admitted sophomore forward Tony Mitchell, who led all scorers with 20 points. "We started picking it up in transition and got a lot more into it."
With coaches emphasizing a fast start, Alabama did just that with junior forward JaMychal Green opening with two dunks and a layup for six of his 15 points, and supplemented by some strong perimeter shooting - which had not been a team strength with UA last in the SEC.
Although senior guard Charvez Davis was held scoreless in his last two games, shooting 0-for-7 since making five 3-pointers and tallying 17 points against Mississippi State on Feb. 2, an early 3 helped regain his confidence and was soon followed by freshman guard Trevor Releford sinking the first of his three 3s.
While that alone equaled Alabama's 2-of-15 performance at Vanderbilt, it made 5-of-9 from beyond the arc in the first half and shot 52.8 percent (19 of 36) overall. Combined with some impressive ball movement and 14-3 edge in assists while making just three turnovers, the Crimson Tide went into the break leading 47-27.
"As a former player, when you knock down shots you'll be amazed how much energy it will give you," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said.
Meanwhile, Alabama's smothering defense was just as potent. While senior point guard Chris Warren came into the game averaging 18.7 points and was the SEC's active leader in career points, assists, 3-pointers and 20-point games, he didn't make a field goal until the waning moments of the game.
The only Rebel with more than one field goal in the first half was senior guard Zach Graham, who made 5-of-9 shots for 11 points, but none of his teammates had more than four.
"They were obviously very aware of where Chris was at all times, which we anticipated," Kennedy said. "Our problem was most of the times when he came off a ball screen he was facing a double team. We had to be better reacting off the ball. I thought we were standing and watching. They're very active with their hands, they run through passes, their reputation defensively preceded them.
"We had to be more aggressive offensively in order to try and stay in the game early. Obviously the hill was too high to climb."
Yet Alabama couldn't maintain the intensity in the second half, when Ole Miss was able to whack away at the deficit after topping out at 23. Despite making just two of its first seven 3-point attempts, the Rebels drained four straight, three by freshman guard Dundrecous Nelson with the last making it 60-50 with 9:10 remaining.
Unlike last year, when Ole Miss came back from a 20-point deficit at home to win a 74-67, this time the Rebels (16-9, 4-6 SEC) got no closer than 65-59. Senior guard Senario Hillman's three-point play with 1:42 to go essentially securing the victory even though Warren finally hit a 3-pointer with 1:16 on the clock. Of his 15 points, 10 were at the free-throw line.
"He really impacts the game" Grant said. "He was a big focus for us and I thought our guys did a very good job on making sure he didn't have easy opportunities, that he earned what he got."
Although it was the second time in four games that Mitchell didn't start, both when Alabama was facing a top-notch point guard, it was his fourth straight 20-point performance. Hillman made a steal to move into a tie for second all-time at UA with Robert Horry at 168, Green had a career-high six blocks and Releford finished with 14 points and seven assists while helping the Tide finish with a 10-2 edge in steals.
"That's what we do, be the best defensive team in the SEC," Releford said. "Coaches told us to sell out for 40 minutes."