- Associated Press - Friday, March 10, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Braxton Key couldn’t help savoring the moment - both his homecoming and postseason were being extended. Alabama’s freshman forward certainly did his part against South Carolina to make it last another day.

Key had 18 points, Riley Norris added 12 and Alabama made 10 of 12 free throws down the stretch to get past South Carolina 64-53 on Friday in a Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal.

Key made 3 of 4 from the line during the critical stretch that finally gave the Crimson Tide space from the Gamecocks in a tense contest. The forward who led Nashville’s Christ Presbyterian Academy to a state championship two years ago moves on to a bigger stage at the tournament he used to attend as a fan - and against No. 8 Kentucky, no less.

“It’s crazy that I’m playing in it and going to be in the semifinals,” said Key, who made 6 of 8 from the field including two 3-pointers. “Great feeling, actually.”

Key’s Alabama teammates and coach Avery Johnson enjoyed the same emotion after gutting out a win against a South Carolina team coming off a double bye.

The fifth-seeded Tide (19-13) scored the game’s final 10 points to earn their second straight win over the No. 4 seed Gamecocks, who missed their final seven shots. Alabama also controlled the boards 42-27 and shot 45 percent in advancing to Saturday’s semifinals against the top-seeded Wildcats.

“We’ve had an up-and-down year in a lot of ways and haven’t been able to put together complete games, especially back to back,” Johnson said. “But we did it tonight. I’m proud of our guys. They were hardnosed, they fought, they were scrappy.”

Sindarius Thornwell had 16 points for South Carolina (22-10) but struggled much of the game. P.J. Dozier had 15 points and Rakym Felder had 10 as the Gamecocks shot 37 percent.

South Carolina led twice after halftime and kept the game close. But each time the Gamecocks gained momentum, Alabama came up with stops and timely baskets.

Then came the Tide’s parade to the free throw line, where they made eight straight to pull away.

BIG PICTURE

Alabama: Playing for a second straight day didn’t faze the Crimson Tide, who seemed more charged when things got tight. Most importantly, they made the most of their free chances as South Carolina tried to pull within a basket. Alabama finally stretched its lead to double digits with 32 seconds remaining. This victory follows up a 90-86, four-overtime win over the then-No. 19 Gamecocks in Columbia on Feb. 7.

South Carolina: Good thing that Alabama also struggled from the field in the first half or Thornwell’s offensive absence could’ve been worse. As it is, he still shot just 5 of 12 from the field and missed some free throws that would’ve gotten the Gamecocks close. Besides losing on the boards, the Gamecocks were also edged 28-24 in the paint.

“The team that wins the paint wins the game,” coach Frank Martin said. “They beat us in every effort category today.”

DEJA VU

Despite the loss, South Carolina’s still appears solid enough to merit a NCAA Tournament bid. On the other hand, the Gamecocks were in the same situation last spring and were left out of the field, a point that wasn’t lost on Martin.

“My feeling hasn’t changed. We lost to a good team,” he said. “We didn’t lose to a team with a 300 RPI. … At the end of the day, the (tournament selection) committee is not going to call me to ask my opinion. So what I think and what I feel is completely irrelevant to the whole situation. But if they feel we won enough, they put us in.”

UP NEXT

Alabama: Faces top-seeded Kentucky in Saturday’s semifinal.

South Carolina: Awaits postseason determination.

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For more AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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The headline of this story has been updated to reflect that Alabama won, not South Carolina.

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