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March 9, 2002

ATLANTA (AP) — Kenny Walker didn’t take anything for granted — even when he saw an Alabama teammate breaking free for a layup.

Walker’s hustle paid off with an emphatic dunk and a three-point play that carried the No. 8 Crimson Tide to a 65-57 victory over South Carolina in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament Saturday.

“Coach is always telling us that a basket is not guaranteed,” said Walker, who broke a 57-57 tie with 26.3 seconds remaining.

South Carolina had the ball and a chance for the lead after Erwin Dudley missed a hook shot with 41 seconds remaining.

Chuck Eidson got tangled with Maurice Williams while dribbling toward the corner, both players tumbling to the court. Alabama’s Rod Grizzard grabbed the loose ball and fired a long pass to Antoine Pettway, who missed the layup but was bailed out by Walker.

Walker jammed the ball through, was fouled by Carlos Powell and hit the free throw to give Alabama a 60-57 lead.

“I was running behind and saw him miss,” Walker said. “I had great timing and made the basket.”

The Crimson Tide (26-6), who already claimed their first regular-season SEC title since 1987, will play for their first tournament championship in 11 years against Mississippi State on Sunday.

South Carolina (18-14) kept it close despite going nearly six minutes in the second half without a field goal.

After Walker’s three-point play, Powell tried to even things up with a 3-pointer, but his shot spun out and caught the rim again before falling into Walker’s hands. The Alabama player was fouled immediately and made one free throw with 17.4 seconds left to seal the victory.

Powell let out an anguished cry and held his head in his hands after the miss.

“We played an exceptional basketball team an exceptional game,” Gamecocks coach Dave Odom said. “I feel good that our team feels bad. They feel a sickness in the stomach that comes from playing a game like that and still losing.”

Odom refused to criticize the officials for letting play continue after Eidson got tangled up with Williams.

Also, there was plenty of confusion after Walker’s dunk, with one official apparently wanting to call a foul on South Carolina before the shot. The officials got together and let the play stand.

“We’re not going to focus on that as being the reason for the win or the loss,” Odom said. “That wouldn’t be fair to Alabama.”

Naturally, Tide coach Mark Gottfried thought it was a proper no-call.

“At some point when you’re trying to win a championship, you’re going to have to make a defensive stop,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily see a foul. We had good pressure on (Eidson) and he lost his balance.”

South Carolina, which upset No. 12 Kentucky on Friday, was denied a chance to play for its first SEC tournament title since joining the league for the 1991-92 season. Odom is hopeful of NCAA consideration, but trip to the NIT is much more likely.

“We want to play in the NCAA, like everybody else, but I wouldn’t want our team to feel second class in the NIT,” he said. “We’ll be proud to be wherever they put us.”

South Carolina was a break or two away from being assured of an NCAA invitation.

During the regular season, the Gamecocks had one-point setbacks against Alabama and No. 12 Kentucky, and they lost by two points to Georgetown and were beaten in overtime by No. 17 Georgia.

Alabama is still hopeful of landing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament — especially if it beats Mississippi State on Sunday.

“I think we’ve certainly done enough to earn a top 2 and maybe even a 1,” Gottfried said.

The Gamecocks were doomed by poor free-throw shooting, making just three of eight. Alabama, which had five fewer field goals, was 20-of-26 at the line.

Walker led Alabama with 21 points. Terrance Meade added 15, while Grizzard, who scored a career-high 33 points in the quarterfinals, was held to seven on 2-of-10 shooting. His first shot — an airball — set the tone.

The teams went back-and-forth through most of the first half, with 12 lead changes and four ties. South Carolina pulled even at 23 on Tony Kitchings’ basket with 3:10 remaining.

But Alabama finished the period with a 15-5 run, including seven straight points in the final minute. Meade hit a 3-pointer, then was fouled on a drive to the basket with less than a second to go. He made both free throws to give the Tide a 38-38 lead at the break.

Alabama pushed the margin to 12 early in the second half before South Carolina reeled off a 9-0 spurt. The Gamecocks stayed close the rest of the way, but didn’t pull even until Aaron Lucas hit a 3-pointer with 1:12 remaining to make it 57-57.

South Carolina went cold after Powell’s jumper with 11:02 to go. The Gamecocks managed only one free throw until Powell converted a three-point play with 5:04 left.

Alabama couldn’t pull away, however, shooting just 39 percent (20-of-51) from the field.

Kitchings led South Carolina with 16 points, and Powell had 15.