A match up of an 8-seed and a 9-seed. Two teams with resumes of big wins but inconsistent play and untimely losses. One of high-flying freshmen, the other of stolid veterans and deadly shooting. This game had all the makings of a great one, and, unlike most sports games with the expectations of being great, this one actually was.
The men in stripes did their absolute best to restrict the pace of the game with their over-eager whistling, yet Alabama and Virginia Tech still put up nearly 170 combined points. Virginia Tech was hot, but Alabama was hotter. Both teams played exceptionally well and with an energy level that made this game an absolute joy to watch, even before knowing the ultimate result.
The Hokies made 6 of their first 7 three point attempts in the first half, but Alabama was attacking the rim against the smaller Tech lineup and kept the game within a possession or two the entire half, with quite a few lead changes the whole way. Collin Sexton was held to only 3 points in the entire first half. Despite that and the fact that Tech was shooting lights out at over 60%, John Petty led the charge with his long-range (or intergalactic, according to Jon Rothstein) accuracy and closed out the half with an emphatic draining of a 3 pointer at the buzzer to entire halftime with a 41-43 deficit.
The second half started a little more slowly as both teams regressed back to earth a little, and only 13 points were scored in the first 5 minutes of the second half. In the midst of a bit of a shooting drought for all but one on Alabama’s squad, Petty hit back-to-back three pointers with a couple of free throws in between for 8 straight points to keep pace with VT’s scoring.
Time continued to wear on, as it does, and Collin Sexton got more and more into the groove, as he does, as he orchestrated play-after-play to get to the basket—and the free throw line. Virginia Tech’s Kerry Blackshear, Jr., their only true center, fouled out in the waning minutes of the half, giving Sexton even more space to attack the basket. Galin Smith was subbed in along with Donta Hall to create a big man mismatch and attack Blackshear’s vacated spot. Hall got one earth-shattering dunk that nearly tilted the entire stadium.
Though they kept the game within reach, when the Hokies lost star point guard Justin Robinson to his 5th foul in the final minute of the game, it was all but over. They fouled as much as possible to send Alabama to the line and conserve clock, but Sexton made enough free throws to stay ahead while Tech was unable to muster a final offensive effort without Robinson.
Alabama shot an outstanding 60% on the night. When you shoot that well for an entire game, you’re not likely to lose. 45% on three pointers was pretty awesome as well. The Tide did have some issues with errant passes and ended up with 17 turnovers on the night. And though early on the game looked nearly rigged with how many fouls were called only on Alabama, it evened out by the end, and VT out-fouled Alabama 22-18.
Sexton, despite his slow start, led the way for Alabama with 25 points— 10 of which came from free throws. He also led the team with 6 assists... which was offset by his also leading the team with 5 turnovers.
John Petty was the hot hand tonight, scoring 20 points while hitting 6/8 three-pointers. He had three assists as well, and did some really great work driving into the lane and dishing the ball to someone else.
Donta Hall was the only other Tide player to make double digits, getting 10 points. Gut Galin Smith was the real surprise of the night, getting significant minutes in both halves and really making an impact the whole time. He wound up with 8 points, 3 rebounds, an assist, and a block. He was constantly in the middle of the fray for every loose ball and took control around the rim against a smaller Virginia Tech team.
To round out the freshmen, Herbert Jones took what amounted to the game-winning charge. His impeccable placement of using his body as human sacrifice is what took Justin Robinson out of the game and effectively killed any sort of offensive momentum that the Hokies were trying to muster to close out the game.
It’s been a crazy season, with expectations of tournament run being marred by a late season collapse that had many ready to move on to a new coach. But whatever the road it took to get here, Alabama is now looking at their best season since 2004 as the prepare to take on 1-seed Villanova on Saturday. The odds aren’t great against such a powerful team, but if Alabama plays like they did tonight— minus the errant passes into the stands— then it could become one of the biggest moments in program history.
Buckle Up, and Roll Tide!
UPDATE: Alabama-Villanova has been scheduled for 11am CT on CBS.