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Alabama coach Nate Oats: “We can beat anybody (in the SEC).”

By LARRY VAUGHT

NASHVILLE — Alabama lost games to Vanderbilt and Missouri last week but coach Nate Oats was surprisingly optimistic about his team’s chances at the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

“If we make 3’s, we have a chance to beat anybody,” Oats said Wednesday after his team’s practice. “If you trade 3’s for 2’s, it gives you a chance. Of course you can always shoot yourself out of a game, too.

“Missouri was our worst effort (of the season). We quit playing defense the last two minutes.”

Alabama is 16-15 going into Thursday’s game against Tennessee, which beat the Crimson Tide 69-68 in Knoxville Feb. 4.

“When we bring our A game, we can beat anybody,” Oats said.

He noted his team beat Mississippi State 90-69, Auburn 83-64 and LSU 88-82. Those are three of the top four seeds in the SEC Tournament. Alabama was also up 21 points at No. 5 seed Florida before losing in double overtime.

Top seed Kentucky beat Alabama 76-67 in Lexington but it was a two-possession game with just over a minute to play.

If Alabama beats Tennessee, it would play Kentucky Friday at 1 p.m. EST in the quarterfinals here.

“We are not afraid of anybody,” Oats said. “We can play with anybody here.”

Oats said sophomore guard Kira Lewis — 18.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.8 steals per game — is playing the best he has all year. Junior Herbert Jones may be able to play without a cast on his left hand — his shooting hand — but has still averaged 7.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.

Junior guard John Petty, a one-time UK recruit, is adding 14.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 steals per game and Oats hopes he’s back almost 100 percent from a late-season elbow injury.

“Petty was not himself at Missouri,” Oats said. “He was not 100 percent. He’s given us an effort you have not seen the previous two years. He’s added defense and now is one of the best two-way players in the conference.”

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