AP Sports Writer
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) -- Alabama's Trevor Releford labored at his hometown gym last summer trying to make his daily quota of 400 shots.
His regimen included some pull up jumpers and a few floaters, but mostly 3-pointers.
The Crimson Tide guard knew he had to expand his role and his shooting range this season when he went from the team's setup man to the go-to-guy with the departures of top scorers JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell.
Releford has become a far more accurate shooter and Alabama's unquestioned star while helping keep the Tide in contention for a Southeastern Conference title and NCAA tournament berth going into Saturday's visit to No. 8 Florida.
"I see a lot more confidence in his shot," said LJ Goolsby, Releford's AAU coach, who worked with his former player last summer in Kansas City. "That's been evident the last couple of games, most importantly."
The 6-foot Releford followed up a career-high 36-point game against LSU by scoring 21 points and sparking a second-half surge against Auburn. He ranks among the SEC's top 5 in scoring (15.6 points a game), field goal percentage (49.1), steals (2.2 per game) and free throw percentage (81.5).
His 42.5-percent clip from 3-point range (37 of 87) would trail only Florida's Erik Murphy if Releford had enough attempts to qualify. He is 8 for 13 the past two games.
"I can't really base my game on how many shots I get up or anything like that, but when the time presents itself and I'm stepping up to make it I feel like I'm more confident now," Releford said.
He also became Alabama's career steals leader against LSU with a year to play.
Releford always had the quickness and athleticism to penetrate and score or dish. But he was a 28-percent 3-point shooter over his first two seasons, when his primary responsibility was often to feed the ball to Green and Mitchell.
Releford has already doubled his five 20-point games of the past two seasons. He has upped his scoring average by more than four points this season and now splits the point guard duties with Trevor Lacey.
If practice has improved his jumper, coach Anthony Grant also praises Releford for his efficiency and shot selection -- big keys for a team whose offense ranges from plodding in the half-court to free-wheeling in transition.
"When he's locked in, he's as good as any guard in our league, across the country," Grant said. "Here of late, I think he's really been playing his best basketball and we need him to continue."
The 36-point effort made the biggest splash but Releford flashed his improved versatility in helping Alabama take control Tuesday night in the second half against Auburn.
He hit a 3-pointer over Allen Payne, who has a 6-inch height advantage, scored on two fast-break layups -- the first with four defenders surrounding him -- and heaved a long pass to Retin Obasohan for a third in a span of 4-1/2 minutes.
"Yeah, he can score a lot of points and he's a great facilitator but he's one of the greatest competitors I've seen in a long time," Obasohan said. "That's what stands out about him.
"He's tenacious. If he wants something he'll just go get it and there are very few people that can stop him from getting what he wants."
Releford's best stretch of his freshman season might have come in the NIT, when Alabama made the championship game. This season, he scored 26 points in a road loss to Missouri and 25 against Villanova in the Tide's most notable nonconference win.
"The bigger the game, the better he is a lot of times," Goolsby said. "That speaks volumes about his competitiveness. Competitors want the biggest challenges. They accept it and embrace it.
"When he plays at a high level, he's as good as any point guard in the country."
Alabama almost certainly needs Releford to rise to the occasion down the stretch to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament, especially against Murphy and the Gators' talented backcourt.
"This game is huge," Releford said. "I think for this program to keep moving up, we need to win a game like this. It's going to be a tough environment, but we're locked in. We see the opportunity and we need to be ready to go and take it."
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