- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There was less than four minutes left in the first half of Tuesday night's game between No. 13 Alabama and No. 18 LSU, and the sold-out crowd of 15,316 at Coleman Coliseum was reaching a fever pitch following a timeout.
But the enthusiasm had nothing to do with the Crimson Tide's 16-2 run that would put the Tigers behind for good. Standing in the tunnel entrance behind LSU's bench was Alabama's new football coach, Nick Saban.
Never mind that Alabama was en route to a 71-61 victory in a key SEC West showdown, a win the Crimson Tide desperately needed after they were embarrassed at Arkansas on Saturday; Saban was the man of the hour and the coach charged with restoring the only sport that matters here.
After LSU forward Glenn Davis grabbed an offensive rebound and scored with 4.3 seconds left in the half to cut Alabama's lead to 35-26 at the break, athletics director Mal Moore and university president Robert Whitt escorted their expensive new coach to midcourt to the chorus of "Saban! Saban!"
Saban, lured away from the Miami Dolphins last week with an outrageous eight-year, $32 million contract, quickly returned some of that investment with a $100,000 donation to the school's scholarship fund. Then he asked the crowd for its help.
"I want everybody here to understand this is your football program, and I want you to take ownership of the program and do everything you can do to make Alabama champions again," Saban told the crowd.
Didn't anyone tell Saban solicitation is never a good idea in Alabama, where a Crimson Tide booster once paid $200,000 for an overweight defensive tackle from Memphis?
It's a shame many in the crowd might never realize the Crimson Tide are a lot closer to winning a national title in basketball than football. Alabama, ranked as high as No. 5 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll this season, is now the early favorite in the SEC West after beating LSU, a national semifinalist last season.
"I'm really proud of our guys because after we had our slice of humble pie the other day, I think it would have been easy to pout and mope and get down," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said of an 88-61 loss at Arkansas, a game in which the Crimson Tide trailed 19-2 and by 29 points at halftime. "Our guys didn't do that. They walked right back into practice the next day, and they were ready to go."
Still, the Crimson Tide haven't yet hit their stride because junior point guard Ronald Steele has been hobbling for more than a month. Steele, a preseason All-America choice, took only three shots against LSU and scored eight points with four assists and three turnovers. The Crimson Tide's four other starters, though, combined for 57 points, led by forward Richard Hendrix, who had 18 points on 8-for-12 shooting.
"I think he's just having trouble getting shots," Gottfried said of Steele, who has tendinitis in his right knee and a sprained left ankle. "I think it's clear he's not 100 percent. For us to win with him taking only three shots, I hope that's a good sign."
It's also a good sign that senior Jermareo Davidson is playing well again. Davidson missed two games after he was involved in a car accident on Nov. 12 that killed his girlfriend. They were returning to Tuscaloosa from Davidson's hometown of Atlanta, where his older brother had been critically injured in a shooting. Davidson left the team and withdrew from classes Dec. 8, but was reinstated to play by the NCAA about a week later. His brother died on Dec. 20.
Davidson, one of the country's best shot blockers, has scored 10 points or more in five of seven games since returning. He had 12 points and 12 rebounds against LSU.
Hendrix, a 6-foot-8, 265-pound power forward from Athens, Ala., is a former Mr. Basketball in the state and was one of the SEC's top freshmen a year ago. This season, he has led the Tide in scoring three times, including a career-high 34 points in a 92-58 win over Alabama State on Dec. 9. Much of his damage against LSU came against Davis, a preseason All-America choice.
"I feel like when I get the ball on the block, I can do good things with it," Hendrix said. "Tonight was one of those nights when the ball was coming to me. Coach was emphasizing getting the ball to me in the post. In the second half, we changed our tone a little bit and pounded it inside."
Davis, who himself was injured in an auto accident Saturday after LSU's 66-49 win over then-No. 14 Connecticut, didn't seem to be bothered by his bruised ribs. The junior scored 24 points on 9-for-16 shooting to go with 17 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Davis hit the floor hard a couple of times and grimaced in pain during timeouts, but played a game-high 39 minutes nonetheless.
"I finished the game," Davis said. "That's all I was thinking. Things happen and things happen for a reason. I think when something happens like that, you have to overcome it. It just takes a lot of character to finish a game when you are mentally and physically beat up. I'm not a quitter. I'm a competitor, and when it comes to the game of basketball, you have to take some bumps and bruises and roll with it."
LSU coach John Brady was frustrated the Tigers didn't do more to help Davis. LSU shot 35.7 percent and missed 14 of 17 3-point attempts.
"I'm disappointed in my inability to give our team what it needed to win this game," Brady said. "I was disappointed that I didn't do a better job because the game was there for us to win, and we didn't seize the opportunities that we had."
After losing SEC Freshman of the Year Tyrus Thomas and sharp-shooting point guard Darrel Mitchell from a team that unexpectedly advanced to the 2006 Final Four, the Tigers have struggled to score so far this season. They came into the game averaging only 73.6 points, third-fewest in the league, and have scored 66 points or fewer in six of 16 games.
"Everything looks a little worse when you don't make open shots, and I mean open shots," Brady said. "Even the man defense looks like a zone when they're playing you at the free throw line. At some point in time, you've got to make shots from 17 or 18 feet, and we weren't able to do that."
LSU and Alabama meet again in Baton Rouge, La., on Jan. 31, and both teams should be further along. And by then, Saban will really have Tide Nation frothing at the mouth.
Because, as the public address announcer in Coleman Coliseum actually proclaimed before the second half, "Ladies and gentleman, this is Alabama football!"
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.