The Crimson Tide basketball team advanced to the finals of the 2011 NIT by taking out fellow #1 seed Colorado 62-61 on Tuesday night in New York City's Madison Square Garden. The Tide overcame a one-point deficit in the final seconds of the game when Trevor Releford hit a contested layup with 12 seconds remaining and Colorado's Alec Burks missed a contested jumper at the buzzer. Bama will now take on Wichita State on Thursday evening at 6:00 CST to decide the NIT title.
For the most part, the game went exactly as Coach Anthony Grant and the Tide wanted it to go. Bama's defensive intensity and offensive patience kept the score in the low 60's, which was pretty much Alabama's target playing against a team with the 9th-ranked offense in the nation and one averaging over 80 points per game. With the exception of a flurry of 3-pointers a few minutes into the second half, Alabama's 1-3-1 matchup zone caused all sorts of problems for the Buffalo offense. Grant ended up employing the 1-3-1 for about 80% of the game, surprising both Alabama fans and apparently the Colorado coaching staff, who hadn't expected Bama to rely primarily on a defense it had only used as a change-of-pace look previously this season. Colorado had to settle for far more 3-point attempts than they prefer (they shot 25), committed 16 turnovers (they entered ranked 17th in the nation in avoiding turnovers), and they were forced to use more of the shot clock than they usually do.
Really, with Alabama holding Colorado to 61 points on 40% shooting and 16 turnovers, the game really should have never come down to a decisive missed shot at the buzzer. Atrocious free throw shooting (4 of 11) and JaMychal Green's foul trouble however kept Bama from getting far enough in front to put the game away. Green's absence was especially costly for the Bama offense, as he proved to be virtually unstoppable for the undersized Buffalo interior defense when he was in the game. In only 26 minutes on the floor, Green scored 22 points on 11-of-16 shooting from the floor. Colorado simply didn't have anyone physical enough to keep him from getting excellent position around the goal, and even when he wasn't around the goal he was hitting jumpers. At this point avoiding foul trouble is probably the biggest area of needed improvement in Green's game.
Trevor Releford also continued to shine in the Tide's NIT run, scoring 13 points and dishing out 6 assists. Releford wasn't perfect, committing 4 costly turnovers and missing 4 big free throws, but when the team most needed plays, the young freshman stepped up and made them. He had some highlight-reel finishes, but probably the most telling sign of how far he's come came during a timeout with 17 seconds left not only in the game, but potentially in the team's season. After the game, Coach Grant admitted that his only thought in drawing up a play during that timeout for the go-ahead basket was to get the ball in Releford's hands and let him make a play, and that's exactly what happened.
While it was a memorable night for Green and especially Releford, two of Bama's biggest stars thus far in the NIT had very forgettable evenings and spent most of the second half on the bench. Tony Mitchell hit two deep jumpers in the first half, but aside from that was very quiet. He played only 12 minutes in the second half, and even then only came in when Green hit foul trouble. There was no word on whether his time on the bench in the second half was due to injury or something else. Senario Hillman only played 11 minutes in the game, and seemed disappointed on the bench late in the game about being passed over in crunch time for freshman Charles Hankerson.
Speaking of Hankerson, this NIT run has been especially valuable for him, as he has garnered crucial minutes of live action in place of Andrew Steele, who is out for the season with a severe concussion. Aside from Hankerson, who scored 4 points and played some solid defense, both Ben Eblen and Carl Engstrom contributed a few minutes each off the bench and made positive contributions. Seniors Chris Hines and Charvez Davis both played nearly the entire 40 minutes, with Hines leading the team with 8 rebounds and scoring 8 points, and Davis scoring 5 points and dishing out 4 assists. It's truly amazing how far Davis has come this year as a defender. He's now so reliable that the coaching staff rarely takes him out of games at this point, even when he's not scoring.
With the Tide gaining an emotional last-second victory on Tuesday night, the key is to quickly put this game behind them and prepare for a Wichita State team that was extremely impressive in its egregious beatdown of Washington State in the other semifinal game. No matter what, that game will be the Tide's last of this memorable season, something that looked highly in doubt in the final seconds against Colorado on Tuesday night. This Tide team wasn't ready to let the ride end, though, and now we'll all be treated to one final encore.