By John Zenor
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's Rodney Cooper turned back a Mississippi State surge with a 3-pointer and Trevor Releford helped put the Bulldogs away after that.
Cooper had 20 points and 10 rebounds and Releford scored six of his 17 in the final 3 minutes to lift streaking Alabama to a 64-56 victory over Mississippi State on Wednesday night.
Sparked by Cooper and Releford, the Crimson Tide (18-8, 10-3 Southeastern Conference) finished a lackluster second half strong to claim its fourth straight victory.
"I thought (Cooper) brought the energy and the passion that we needed, some big plays and big rebounds, that allowed us to have a chance to win," Tide coach Anthony Grant said. "Trevor's energy, especially in the second half, from a defensive standpoint he locked in and brought energy to our team and made some plays down the stretch that allowed us to preserve the win."
It was a game Alabama probably couldn't afford to lose in its late bid to make the NCAA tournament.
The Tide also closed the gap on SEC-leading Florida (11-2) after the fifth-ranked Gators lost to Missouri Tuesday night.
The Bulldogs (7-18, 2-11) cut a 13-point second-half deficit to four points before losing their 11th consecutive game to match the 1982 team for the second-longest skid in program history.
Cooper was 7-of-10 shooting for his first career double-double — scoring 15 after halftime. Releford had five assists and five of the Tide's 18 steals. Trevor Lacey added 11 points before fouling out.
Mississippi State's Jalen Steele returned from a three-game suspension for violating team rules to fuel the comeback attempt and score 15 points.
Colin Borchert had 14 points and nine rebounds for Mississippi State, which committed 23 turnovers. Craig Sword was held to six points after scoring 25 against LSU.
Bulldogs coach Rick Ray at least found a positive in his team's effort after enduring some blowouts during this stretch.
"I'm really pleased with the way our guys came out and competed," Ray said. "When you're in the situation like we are, losing (10) straight games, guys suspended, guys with injuries ... I was a little worried after we had those tough losses at home to Texas A&M and LSU about where our team psyche was. Whether they were going to be able to go out and continue to compete. I didn't think we'd done that the last few games."
Steele scored 10 points in the second half and made 3 of 6 3-pointers. The rest of the Bulldogs struggled from the outside before they combined to hit three in the final minute.
Alabama led 31-20 at halftime and scored the first two points of the second half but couldn't put the Bulldogs away until the final minutes.
Mississippi State shot 12 of 22 (54.5 percent) in the second half. Alabama hit 21 of 27 free throws in the game.
Steele pulled up for a quick 3-pointer to make it 47-43 with 5:20 left after Mississippi State's Gavin Ware made a basket and free throw two minutes earlier.
Cooper answered with a 3-pointer for the Tide's first field goal in more than five minutes, starting a decisive 15-4 run.
"That was a huge shot for our team," Releford said. "We needed that spark. That's what Coop does; he's a knock-down shooter."
Then Retin Obasohan had a steal and long pass to Lacey for a layup to push the lead back to 52-43 with 4:04 remaining.
Steele hit a couple of free throws after Alabama failed to score, but Releford got a steal and fast-break layup and then finished another fast break with a pass to Cooper for a dunk to end the threat. Releford followed that with four straight free throws to continue the bailout.
"We didn't have the energy," Releford said. "When we don't have energy, we play like that. We have slumps, we don't score, and we give up plays on the defensive end. When we come with energy, I don't think things like that happened."
Even with Steele's return, the Bulldogs remained with only six scholarship players. Ray suspended forward Roquez Johnson indefinitely on Monday for violating team rules.
Steele showed few signs of rust after the suspension.
"He's an experienced basketball player," Ray said. "He should be able to come back and get in the flow of it. If he didn't, who on our team can?"