The emotion was unmistakable Tuesday night in Nashville.
There were a few tears wiped on warmups in the pregame shootaround on a heavy night for the No. 4 Alabama basketball team. The 78-66 win over Vanderbilt came just three days after former teammate Darius Miles was charged with capital murder in what’s been a mentally taxing stretch.
The seventh straight Crimson Tide win was never particularly close until the closing moments. A 23-point Alabama lead slipped all the way to 68-62 with under a minute left before the Tide pulled away one final time from the foul line.
The tragedy from Tuscaloosa was still looming large over this game.
“I didn’t see a ton of emotion pregame necessarily but I did see some guys break down postgame,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said via Zoom after the game. “I think they were bottling some stuff up. You know, we had a job to do. We had to get to the game, got to the game, took care of business and then it’s almost like there’s a big relief the game is over and we let out a sigh of relief.”
Crimson Tide players were not available for comment after the game.
Alabama (16-2, 6-0 SEC) got a game-high 30 from star freshman Brandon Miller in a homecoming game for the Nashville-area product. The forward added his 10th rebound late for a double-double on a night he made 10 of his 16 shots.
Though a few hours from home, the quirky Memorial Gymnasium on Vanderbilt’s campus had a heavy crimson presence. The visiting crowd was in party mode when Miller’s 3 made it 53-30 with 12:44 left but Vanderbilt’s frigid shooting turned thawed for a time. Commodore Tyrin Lawrence scored 17 of his 20 after halftime but the Commodores got no closer than six in the final moments.
It wasn’t enough to end Alabama’s streak of holding seven straight opponents under 70 points.
“I think we’ve shown mental toughness in the past,” Oats said. “We won at Houston, the No. 1 team in the country after being down 15 at the half. We won at Arkansas, one of the toughest places to play. They were picked to be in the top two or three in the league by everybody. So we’ve gone on the road and won in the past. We had a little bit different circumstances — a lot different circumstances here — it’s still a road win. I just think we have a mentally tough group.”
Vanderbilt fell to 9-9, 2-3 in the SEC with the loss four days after beating No. 15 Arkansas on the same floor.
Alabama came out fast, sprinting to a 13-3 lead as the hosts missed 12 of its first 13 shots. The Tide was working the inside as Vanderbilt was playing without 7-foot leading scorer and rim protector Liam Robbins. Without the shot-blocking leader down low, Alabama outscored the Commodores 20-8 in the paint before halftime and 40-26 in the game.
Miller scored five of the first nine and 12 of the 36 by halftime as he played with an edge. Twice in the first half he said something to the Commodore bench after making shots at the rim as three of the first six Alabama baskets came on dunks.
Vanderbilt fired back as the Tide shifted its focus to the perimeter. After making its first two outside shots, Alabama missed its next eight as the Commodores took a 22-21 lead on a Malik Dia 3-pointer.
The 10-0 Alabama run that followed saw Vanderbilt again go cold while making just 2 of 12 shots. A 36-26 halftime margin saw the Commodores shooting just 25.6% from the field.
Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or on Facebook.