Man, that was a tense game. If you didn’t read Parker’s preview of UT-Arlington here on RBR before the game, you might have been surprised that such a small-name school put up such a fight. But this was a 27-win team last year, with a starting lineup of mostly all returning juniors and seniors with a penchant for 3-point sharpshooting.
It seemed that Alabama’s basketball team didn’t read our preview either, as they came out listless as Kevin Hervey made shot after shot after shot after shot after shot. Seriously. I think he made his first 9 in a row or something like that, with most being 3 pointers. The Mavericks jumped out to a 17-7 lead early on, and Bama played catch up the rest of the first half. They hovered right around the 10 point deficit (plus or minus a few points here and there) as Coach Avery Johnson tried out a few different rotations of players and tried to work senior Riley Norris back into the game for his season debut.
With a minute left in the half, Collin Sexton hit a shot and only a few seconds later, assisted Herb Jones for a dunk to close out the first half down 41-46. UTA had been hitting somewhere in the neighborhood of 67% of their shots all half, and that number was bound to regress in the second half.
Both teams started the second half a little slow, but by the 15 minute mark, Sexton made a couple of free throws (!) to tie the game up at 51, and a couple of possessions later Avery Johnson Jr. drained a three from the back corner to give Alabama their first lead of the night.
It only lasted a few seconds before UTA made yet another three pointer, but Daniel Giddens appeared from whatever offensive rock he had been hiding under and drove the lane for a lay-up, then got a sweet pass under the basket from Avery Jr. and slammed it home. 30 seconds later, Herb Jones hit a 3 pointer and Alabama took the lead again 61-60. Then Avery Jr. drained another NBA 3 to go up 64-60, and a few possessions later, he rocketed down the court to catch a pass off a turnover from Herb Jones and, being too short to dunk I guess, took the easy layup and Alabama had a 6 point lead and all the momentum.
After that, aside from one dunk from Donta Hall, it was up to Sexton to hit enough free throws to outscore flashy point guard Erick Neal. With a minute and a half left, Hervey tied the game at 73 all with a couple of free throws, and we were all getting quite nervous. Sexton clanked two free throws in to go up 75-73, and after a defensive stop, he had the ball in his hands again with under 45 seconds to go and a chance to make it a two score game. Everyone in the building knew he was taking that ball himself.
He did anyway, and, like the superstar he already is, he drove into the lane and magically floated the ball up into the goal.
UTA immediately hit another 3, just like they did all night, but with only 19 seconds left, it seemed there was little chance for them to get the ball back. Except they plastered all the men on the inbound pass, and Herb Jones was beaten by the 5-second clock. Suddenly they had the ball back with 19 seconds to go and down one point. It was down to the Tide defense, not the offense, to win the game.
Sexton plastered to Neal the whole way, and UTA seemed content to not let anyone other than Neal take the shot. He never got the chance to square up to the basket, and the shot wasn’t even close. Final score: 77-76
UTA was an extremely accurate team, shooting 52% field goals and 48% 3-pointers on the night. They outrebounded the Tide 33-28 as well. But two areas made the difference: they had 18 turnovers to Alabama’s 14, and they had 23 personal fouls to Bama’s 13. Alabama outscored them on free throws 15-4.
Collin Sexton was everything all night. In a night where no other Tide player got into double digits in scoring, he was only 1 point shy of 30. He was 8/15 shooting, but more importantly, he drew fouls every time he drove to the basket and made them pay by hitting 11/14 free throws all night.
While Sexton did all the scoring, Herb Jones led the team in dirty-work plays. He was all over the court chasing loose balls and just making carnage happen in Bama’s favor. He led the team with 9 rebounds and 4 steals, and he also drew 3 charging fouls on the opponent offense.
John Petty’s 3-point sharpshooting regressed some this week, and he only hit 2 out of 10 3-point attempts, while also committing 4 turnovers. It wasn’t his best game, but hey, he’s only 4 games into his freshman year.
Avery Junior had 8 points and an assist. He’s not a starter, but infusing him into the lineup at just the right time to create a spark of energy is exactly the best way to use him. Just when Alabama was right on the tipping point of catching up and having the chance to pull ahead, Junior came in and made 3 huge plays in the span of a couple of minutes to put Alabama in a leading position, rather than one from behind.
Donta Hall continues to be an effective, if not spectacular big man in the middle. He ended up with 8 points and a couple of blocks (plus another awesome one that got called goal tending). Daniel Giddens, meanwhile, is mostly invisible. Riley Norris got a little playing time too, but looked really slow and lethargic out there. I’m not sure he’s really 100% from the injury yet.
Alabama, a team of mostly freshmen and sophomores, got a good experience today in overcoming a high scoring team and a deficit, and then holding on to a slight lead in the waning minutes of a game. And don’t let the name fool you, the University of Texas- Arlington is a good basketball program, ranked 40th in RPI last season, and are filled with senior leadership.
This Alabama team is something very different, and very special.