AUBURN, Ala. (AP) – The Auburn Tigers are scrambling to become eligible for a postseason tournament, while Alabama is trying to salvage a disappointing season.
The two rivals meet Tuesday night in a rematch of a game that went down to the final shot three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa.
The Tigers (12-13, 4-8 Southeastern Conference) face a challenging enough schedule that they’re practically treating beating the Tide (15-10, 5-7) as a prerequisite for a winning record and getting into the mix for a postseason bid.
Next up is Saturday’s visit to No. 1 Kentucky.
“Right now it makes this next game a must-win situation,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said on Monday. “It is a rival game for us, but now it gets us to .500 (overall). It keeps us in the loop for postseason as far as being above .500. If you look at the schedule you understand the challenges of that.”
Auburn does have some momentum after a road upset of Georgia. Alabama is trying to rebound from a home loss to Vanderbilt when coach Anthony Grant wasn’t happy with his team’s defensive effort or sense of urgency for this point in the season.
The Tide once looked like a potential NCAA tournament team. Alabama is 2-6 in road games and has been struggling from the floor, shooting worse than 40 percent in three straight games.
“We’ve got to be able to understand the opportunities we have and make the most of those opportunities,” Grant said. “Unfortunately for us, Vanderbilt outplayed us in the game the other night. We’ve got another opportunity here to make sure we bring our best when we play at Auburn.”
The Tide remains without starting guard Ricky Tarrant, who has an unspecified leg injury.
Alabama won the last meeting 57-55 on Jan. 24 after surging back from a nine-point deficit in the second half. Levi Randolph’s tip-in with 5.8 seconds left gave the Tide the lead and Auburn turned it over without getting off a shot.
“I think it’s going to make us play even harder because there’s nobody in the locker room that doesn’t think we should have won the game we played at Alabama,” Tigers guard KT Harrell said. “I think it’s just going to make us play even harder, with a lot more energy. We’re going to execute the things that coach talks about because we really want to beat them.”
Harrell scored 22 points in the first meeting and hit a key 3-pointer late in the Tigers’ 69-68 win over Georgia.
Auburn has lost three straight games at Auburn Arena. Pearl, who has never had a losing record as a head coach, emphasizes the importance of winning these rivalry games in trying to build the program.
“We need to build that foundation, make a mark and change the culture,” he said. “At the end of the season we can look back and say we did that a few times, but this is not the end of the season. You have to beat Alabama if you are going to be able to build that foundation. You have to be able to beat your rival.”
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