Thursday, March 14, 2002
GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) -- Mo Williams regrouped from the disappointment of his last game and saved the day for Alabama.
The 6-foot-1 guard scored a career-high 33 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and had six assists Thursday as the Southeastern Conference regular-season champions survived a scare and beat Florida Atlantic 86-78 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Williams, the SEC freshman of the year, missed a 3-pointer that could have beat Mississippi State in the conference tourney final last weekend. But his performance against FAU more than made up for the disappointment.
"Mo stepped right into practice yesterday and went as hard as he could. Then he came out today and showed what kind of player he is," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said.
"He was really feeling it. He was in a groove," Florida Atlantic's Jeff Cowans said. "We really didn't expect that from a freshman, but he sure showed leadership."
Williams made 9 of 13 shots and went 12-for-13 from the foul line, picking up the slack with Alabama's top scorers -- Erwin Dudley and Rod Grizzard -- struggling.
Grizzard was scoreless until his 3-pointer put Alabama ahead 64-61 with just over 8 minutes to go. The 6-foot-8 guard made another 3-pointer to start the 10-0 run that broke the game open.
Dudley, the SEC player of the year, finished with 15 points and nine rebounds. Grizzard was limited to six points on 2-for-8 shooting.
"Anybody watching the game could see the way we were playing. In the first half, we tried to pick ourselves up in the huddle, but it just wasn't there," said Williams, adding that the Crimson Tide never panicked.
"Once you play 19 games in the SEC, I don't think anything gets you nervous. It's the best conference in the country."
Alabama (27-7) advanced to a second-round matchup against Kent State, a 69-61 first-round winner over Oklahoma State.
Florida Atlantic, trying to become just the fifth No. 15 seed to knock off a No. 2, matched the heavily favored Crimson Tide basket for basket for nearly 33 minutes.
Earnest Crumbley led the Owls (19-12) with 18 points, and Raheim Brown had 15 points and 10 rebounds.
"You've got to credit Alabama," said FAU coach Sidney Green, the former UNLV star and one-time NBA player. "They had a response for everything we threw at them."
Alabama was left out of the NCAA field last season despite winning 25 games, the victim of a weak schedule. The Crimson Tide beefed up their non-conference slate and used what they still perceive as a slight as motivation to tear through the SEC this year.
The No. 2 seeding equals the best ever for Alabama, which also was a No. 2 seed in 1987 when Gottfried was a senior on a team that won a school-record 28 games.
The Crimson Tide can match that mark by beating Kent State (28-9), which extended its winning streak to 19 with its upset of Oklahoma State.
FAU made the field of 65 for the first time by winning the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament, capping a dramatic turnaround from a 2-28 finish just two years ago _ Green's first at the Boca Raton, Fla., college that hopes it has forever shed the moniker of F-A-Who?
The Owls insisted they wouldn't be intimidated by Alabama's reputation, playing on national television or before a crowd five or six times larger than norm for one of their games.
They stormed back from a 30-19 deficit to lead 40-38 at the half, and Green and his players weren't satisfied with merely playing Alabama tough.
"Moral victories aren't really a payoff for me," Brown said, breaking down as Green comforted him. "I'm really hurt now. I can't even talk."