Kudos to any of you who survived watching that entire game.
It was about as ugly of a college basketball game as you’ll ever see, and it lasted nearly an hour and a half longer than it was slotted for. Despite the plethora of fouls, timeouts, commercials, and just all around terrible offenses, I saw something in the Alabama basketball team that we haven’t in nearly a decade: a true refusal to lose.
The game started about as expected: both teams playing tight, aggressive defense. Yet it wasn’t long before Alabama jumped out to a 8-2 lead following back to back baskets in the paint form Dazon Ingram, and they didn’t look back. I wouldn’t say that Alabama was hot, necessarily— more that South Carolina was determined to outdo themselves on every possession on how creative they could get with their turnovers.
With 9 and a half minutes left in the first half, Alabama had a commanding (and quite surprising) lead of 23-10. And then nobody on either team scored a basket for 5 minutes until Avery Johnson Jr. hit a layup. Two possessions later, Johnson hit a 3 point shot to bring Alabama’s lead to 17, and begin what ended up being a career night for the back-up point guard. The game took a break for halftime with Alabama up 32-16.
The second half was a whole other story. It wasn’t that South Carolina started shooting better or Alabama got significantly worse. It was more of the fact that we spent the entire half watching Sindarius Thornwell shoot free throws.
Seriously. Pretty much the entire half went like this:
Thornwell gets the ball
Thornwell drives directly into three defenders*
Thornwell gets two free throws
Alabama gets the ball back
Alabama turns it over
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
*at the end of the half, you could also add a line here that Alabama lost another player to the 5-foul monster every time.
And that is all I have to say about that entire half. It ended 57-57. Alabama had lost Dazon Ingram and Braxton Key to foul trouble. Then the overtimes began.
Thornwell opened the first period up with two more free throws, and then Jimmie Taylor came back into the game, despite already having 4 fouls. He heroically drew a foul while making a basket, and launched his beautiful sideways freethrow right down the center of the net for a three point play, and then fouled out a minute later. Armond Davis and Shannon Hale hit a few free throws, as did Thornwell, and then neither team scored for the last 1:40 and the game went into overtime #2, with the score tied at 63.
South Carolina scored 7 straight points of the back of (not Thornwell, for once) P.J. Dozier, and it looked like someone had finally stuck a fork in the Alabama basketball squad, because by all rights they should have been done. Instead, Riley Norris left his comfort zone at the three point arc and mustered everything he had to drive straight into the heart of the Gamecock defense, making an impossible layup and drawing the foul, getting a three point play out of the deal.
On the very next possession, Norris looked like he was about to do the same thing, drawing the entire defense to him. Instead, he dished it out to Ar’Mond Davis at the last second, who drained the three pointer from the back left corner. Once USC took the ball back to their side of the court, Avery Johnson Jr. anticipated a perimeter pass with all the certainty of a good doomsday priest and intercepted it mid-stride on his way to the other end of the court to give Alabama a 1-point lead.
Thornwell (of course) made a layup, but AJJ responded again with his late game heroics and hit a three point shot. Then Thornwell (who else?) made another one in the paint with six seconds left to send the game to a third overtime.
Alabama scored 5 straight to open up the third overtime, including a surprise appearance from Donta Hall, who had all but disappeared in the bench for whatever reason. Ar’Mond Davis and P.J. Dozier traded back to back three pointers, and then none other than Sindarius Thornwell hit the game tying free throws to send the match into a 4th overtime with the score at 82.
Riley Norris and Corban Collins each got a layup on back to back drives into the paint (both required impressive toughness and concentration), while P.J. Dozier hit a couple of layups of his own. Then Riley Norris took over, putting away 4-straight free throws and emphatically grabbing a rebound over Thornwell end South Carolina’s final possession of hope.
Alabama hit 42.3% of their shots from the court, while hitting 30% of their three point shots. Meanwhile, South Carolina hit only 26.1% and 16.1%, respectively. Based off of that, you’d think that the Tide ran away with the game... That is until you saw that USCe shot 50 free throws on the night (Thornwell shot 33 of those). Those free throws were the difference.
Alabama’s usual stars were mostly a non-factor tonight, with Dazon Ingram scoring 7 points to his 6 turnovers and Braxton Key with 6 points and 4 turnovers.
Instead, Riley Norris, Avery Johnson Jr., and Ar’Mond Davis became the unlikely heroes. Norris was the stabilizing presence for the Tide, getting 14 rebounds to go with his timely 11 points for a double-double, while adding 4 assists and 0 turnovers to his stat sheet.
AJ Jr. had a career night with 23 points. He attempted 21 total shots and was 5-10 on three-pointers. He was a sparkplug for a mostly anemic Tide offense all night, and added 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals.
Ar’Mond Davis was the biggest surprise. He got some minutes early in the first half in a move that no one saw coming, and then played the entire end of the game with Key, Ingram, and Taylor all on the bench with foul trouble. He scored a career-high 19 points, and only 9 were from three-pointers. Davis actually made a few impressive drives inside, even making a couple of seemingly impossible lay-ups. I don’t know where it came from, but I hope to see more of this Davis in the future.
It was ugly, hard to watch, and as slow as molasses... But Alabama survived their own choke. This team has earned a reputation over the last decade of choking away most every 2nd half lead, and nearly did the same today. But with the stars on the bench, Davis, Norris, and Johnson Jr. picked up the slack and carried the team with the heart and perseverance that I just haven’t seen in this team before.
If they can keep that mindset strong going into the rest of conference play, the Tide just might develop into a team that scares the rest of the SEC.