NEW ORLEANS — Trevor Lacey's freshman season at Alabama has been typical of a young player inconsistent but full of promise.
That promise turned into reality during the Crimson Tide's 63-57 victory over South Carolina in the opening round of the Southeastern Conference tournament on Thursday.
Lacey scored 15 points, including seven in the final three minutes, JaMychal Green added 12 and Alabama played lockdown defense in the final six minutes to finish off a tight contest one that saw Alabama take a 14-point lead in the first half before South Carolina put together an impressive second-half rally.
"Our guys stayed together, stayed poised, played with great heart and passion, and were able to come out with the win," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said.
The fifth-seeded Crimson Tide led for most of the game, but South Carolina tied it at 51 on the second of back-to-back 3-pointers by Brenton Williams with 6:38 remaining. Alabama (21-10) then held 12th-seeded South Carolina (10-21) scoreless for more than five minutes and did enough on offense to ease past the Gamecocks.
South Carolina had 17 turnovers and was outrebounded 29-25. Alabama had a huge advantage at the foul line, making 24 of 29 while South Carolina made 5 of 6.
"Alabama is apparently the best defensive team in the country at playing really hard and really physical and not fouling, because we only got to the line six times and they shot 29," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said.
It was a brutal season for South Carolina, which finished last in the SEC with a 2-14 record in Horn's fourth season. But Horn said he felt confident that he would remain with the Gamecocks for a fifth season.
"Yeah, my thing right now is that we're committed to building our program," Horn said. "That's going to start with, now that our season's over, hitting the recruiting trail immediately as the rules allow."
Lacey was efficient for the Crimson Tide and clutch in the final minutes. His 3-pointer with 1:00 remaining was especially critical, giving Alabama an insurmountable 58-53 lead. Lacey had made just 27.7 percent (26 of 94) of his 3-point attempts this season before that shot.
But this one was true.
"I just had to make them pay for leaving me open," Lacey said.
The 6-foot-3 guard made 4 of 5 shots from the field and was 6 of 6 from the free-throw line. The 15 points were his third-highest output of the season.
"I'm very proud of him for his aggressiveness and willingness to make the plays that needed to be made," Grant said. "I didn't realize it was seven points over the last three minutes, but certainly every one that he made, they were big shots, points that we needed."
Green added seven rebounds and two blocked shots.
South Carolina lost 11 of 12 games to end the season. Alabama won for the fifth time in six games and advances to play Florida in the quarterfinals on Friday.
Williams and Damien Leonard led South Carolina with 13 points each. Bruce Ellington added 11 points and six assists.
Alabama used an 8-0 run midway through the first half to break open a tight game and eventually build a 37-26 halftime lead. Nick Jacobs scored eight first-half points despite turning his right ankle and briefly leaving the game.
But South Carolina pushed back early in the second half, pulling within 42-40 on R.J. Slawson's layup with 13:48 remaining. The Gamecocks stayed within striking distance throughout the final minutes and appeared to have the momentum after Williams' two 3-pointers, but couldn't score again until an Ellington layup with 1:33 remaining.
SOUTH CAROLINA (10-21)
Gill 1-2 0-0 2, Cooke 2-6 2-2 6, Ellington 5-11 0-0 11, Harris 2-3 2-2 6, Leonard 4-13 1-2 13, Williams 5-7 0-0 13, Richardson 1-1 0-0 2, Smith 0-1 0-0 0, Jackson 0-2 0-0 0, Slawson 1-5 0-0 2, Geathers 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 22-52 5-6 57.
Green 3-4 6-8 12, Releford 3-7 3-3 9, Jacobs 4-6 2-4 10, Randolph 2-5 5-6 9, Steele 1-3 0-0 2, Hankerson Jr. 0-2 0-0 0, Lacey 4-5 6-6 15, Engstrom 1-2 0-0 2, Eblen 0-0 0-0 0, Cooper 1-7 2-2 4. Totals 19-41 24-29 63.
Halftime: Alabama 37-26. 3-Point Goals: South Carolina 8-24 (Leonard 4-10, Williams 3-3, Ellington 1-5, Smith 0-1, Gill 0-1, Cooke 0-2, Slawson 0-2), Alabama 1-6 (Lacey 1-1, Hankerson Jr. 0-1, Releford 0-1, Randolph 0-1, Cooper 0-2). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: South Carolina 25 (Slawson 9), Alabama 29 (Green 7). Assists: South Carolina 11 (Ellington 6), Alabama 7 (Steele 3). Total Fouls: South Carolina 25, Alabama 12. Attendance: 10,703.