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Tigers and Tide: The Immortal Rivalry takes to the hardcourt again

The last time around.

The story of this season’s hardwood version of the Iron Bowl undoubtedly begins where it left off a year ago, in an erupting Coleman Coliseum with time expiring, the last time Auburn and Alabama faced off.

Then, it was the young, upstart, and short-handed 2010-2011 Tigers trying to pull off the upset in one of the two most important games of the year, and giving the SEC West division champions and SEC tournament No. 2 seed all they could handle in their own house. Auburn was playing under first-year coach in Tony Barbee, without veteran leader Frankie Sullivan, who was injured for the season, and with a starting lineup featuring a junior, a freshman, and three sophomores — one of those a walk-on.

Still, Auburn gave Bama all it could ask for and more for nearly 40 minutes — until a last-second tip in by JaMychal Green with 0:00.3 remaining in the game lifted the Tide to a 51-49 victory. The young Auburn team was already undermanned as it was before it saw big men Rob Chubb, Adrian Forbes, and Kenny Gabriel all foul out of the game down the stretch, until there was no one left to box out or contest Green, who sent Coleman Coliseum into a frenzy, and the Tigers on a long bus ride back home to the Plains with a stinging rivalry loss that they’ve had hanging over them ever since — until today.

But, truthfully, the story of today’s game and this year’s series between the Tigers and the Tide goes back much further than that.

It was four years ago that circles in the high school hoops community in Alabama were captivated by a two-man race for the 2008 title of Mr. Basketball, given to the most outstanding high school basketball player in the state, as voted on by the Alabama Sports Writers Association. The odds-on favorite was an eventual McDonald’s All-American, privileged to play at a private school in the middle of swirling media attention in the high school hoops hotbed of Montgomery — both the capitol of the state of Alabama and the capitol of high school basketball in Alabama. His name was JaMychal Green, and he led St. Jude to class 1A state championships his sophomore and senior seasons, and was recognized by the ASWA as the Class 1A Player of the Year for three consecutive years, in 2006, 2007, and after his senior year in 2008.

The dominating big man playing squarely in the center of attention in Montgomery would have won Mr. Basketball honors easily if it wasn’t for his surprising challenger — a small sharpshooting guard from a tiny 2A public school in Uniontown. He was Frankie Sullivan, and he had three ASWA Player of the Year titles to his own credit, in Class 2A. He led R.C. Hatch to three consecutive 2A state championships, winning his last title with a superhuman performance in the final game of his high school career, leading his team back from an 18-point third quarter deficit by scoring 22 points in the fourth quarter alone to finish with 51 points and a comeback victory in the state championship game his senior year.

That closing performance alone seemingly made it one of the most intriguing races in recent memory of the award, but in the end sports writers in the state elected the headline-grabbing big man from the private school in Montgomery, in what was then the closest Mr. Basketball vote in Alabama since 1992.

Green edged Sullivan for the award, but it was clear then who the best two high school players in state were, and their fates would be intertwined forever. JaMychal Green went on to sign with Alabama. Frankie Sullivan went to Auburn.

Now, four years later, Green is a senior for the Crimson Tide and Sullivan is a redshirt junior. Each has become a veteran leader for his team, and just as the basketball community knew they would way back at the end of their high school careers, each will lead their team onto the court in the biggest basketball game of the year in the state, between Auburn and Alabama.

JaMychal Green has been a Tiger-killer for the Crimson Tide, averaging 11.5 points per game in 6 tries against Auburn in his career, and after scoring over 15 points in 3 of those games and has firmly established himself Auburn basketball’s Darth Vader. Things will be different this season, however, when his counterpart Frankie Sullivan takes the court for the Tigers. Auburn supportershope Sullivan can provide that same offensive firepower after having to sit and watch Green crush his team with that last-second score in Tuscaloosa last year, out with an ACL tear during his medical redshirt season.

But Sullivan and Green won’t be the only players on the court tonight. Two new heavyweights have been added to the fold, both getting to tonight in different ways and holding vastly different places in Alabama basketball lore.

In the last two years, the next big thing to come out of high school hoops in Alabama has been Trevor Lacey, only the second two-time winner in the history of the Mr. Basketball award, winning it in 2010 and 2011. Lacey spurned out-of-state programs like Kentucky to play for the Crimson Tide, and as a true freshman now at Alabama, and depending on where his basketball career takes him, knows he could only have a few chances to make an impact on the Auburn-Alabama rivalry.

And while Alabama went young in bringing in a big-time recruit like Lacey, Auburn went the other way in finding an upperclassman tansfer in Varez Ward. The high-profile transfer point guard could have contended for the title of Mr. Basketball himself during his time at Jefferson Davis — a program that’s one of the four 6A giants that make Montgomery such a hoops hotbed. Varez was overshadowed by (and formed one of the best back-courts you could find with) his teammate Courtney Fortson, who would win the ASWA honor in 2007. Fortson went on to play at Arkansas; Ward to Texas. As fate would have it, Fortson has moved on and made his professional debut with the Clippers earlier this season, while Ward was set back by a devastating knee injury with the Longhorns and has had to return home to the state of Alabama — Auburn, specifically.

But at the end of the day this kind of rivalry game it doesn’t matter where any member of either team comes from or how their legacies are compared in high school basketball circles throughout the state. Instead, on a big stage such as the one tonight, anyone can make an impact and make basketball history in the state of Alabama.

When it comes to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry, everyone in tune with basketball in the state will be watching, every newspaper throughout the state will run a story tomorrow with the hero’s name woven throughout it, and every hardcore hoops fan will remember the performance and bring it up in basketball circles throughout the state for years to come.

For Auburn, tonight is the most important game of the season, and for Alabama, it’s the second-most — and the opposite will be true on February 29 when the series shifts to Tuscaloosa. There’s a pair of games each season, and no matter who you are, you better not lose at home.

Auburn’s chance at Alabama at home is tonight.

Tonight, the Auburn-Alabama rivalry hits the hardcourt, where legacies from the past and the unseen potential of the future collide. The Tide and Tigers clash, stories are interwoven. For some, entire careers have been built up to the night where they lead their respective team onto the court against their most bitter rival. And regardless of whether the game is decided by a last second tip in or a missed free throw down the stretch, each player’s performance will be remembered — and it will have an effect on how each player is remembered.

Tonight, the rivalry hits Auburn Arena.

Photo via.

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