Ninety-four feet to heartbreak, ninety four feet to glory.
Alabama stumbled down the stretch, giving up all of a 12 point lead, and trailed by one with 4.4 seconds left to Texas A&M in their opener of the SEC Tournament on Thursday. What do you do when you have to go 94 feet in four seconds? You get the ball in the hands of the fastest, most electric player in the college game. You get the ball to the Young Bull, Collin Sexton, and let him weave his magic. Braxton Key inbounded, the dynamic freshman took the ball, and took off, bouncing and weaving his way up the court, got into the lane, went up off the wrong foot, and lifted a high finger roll over the outstretched arms of 6’10’ Robert Williams of TAMU. The ball found the bottom of the net, the buzzer went off, and the Tide had a thrilling must-win by a score of 71-70. ‘Bama improved to 18-14 on the season while TAMU fell to 20-12. The Tide won the season series two games to one over the Aggies.
As per the usual, the Tide started off slowly, falling behind quickly, 8-2. Coach Avery Johnson once again shuffled his starting lineup, adding Galin Smith to Sexton, Dazon Ingram, John Petty, and Donta Hall. Smith was active early and had three quick rebounds and helped keep ‘Bama within striking distance. The team started running and eventually took the lead at 19-16 on a Hall basket. Despite getting overwhelmed on the boards, the Tide was able to stretch the half time lead out to 35-28, thanks mostly to Sexton. ‘Bama only had three turnovers in the half, and made only one of six three point attempts.
The Tide came out strong in the second half using an Ingram three point basket to start the frame. With 18 minutes left and a comfortable lead things almost fell apart when Sexton was called for an intentional tripping foul on his nemesis, T.J. Starks. Starks and Sexton had a memorable encounter in Saturday’s end of the regular season game. The Aggie point guard apparently took offense to Sexton’s trash talk and pushed him in the face. Somehow both players drew technical fouls in that case. In today’s incident, Starks was only able to hit one of the two free throws, and then the Aggies turned the ball over, so the damage was limited to a one point swing.
With nine minutes remaining the Tide had built a 10 point lead by playing fast and running the floor. At that point the strategy seemed to change to “hold on, lets not lose”, and the lead was slowly whittled away. A 5:42 scoring drought followed. ‘Bama wasn't able to take advantage of four straight TAMU turnovers for continually fumbling the ball out of bounds themselves. A&M tied the game with a three pointer with 1:10 left, but Sexton found his way into the lane, hitting a short floater and was fouled. With under a minute left the SEC Freshman of the Year missed the free throw, leaving the Tide with a two point lead. The Aggies once again tied things with 37 seconds left. Sexton answered again and the Tide had the lead by two with seconds remaining. Starks stepped up and nailed an NBA range three to give TAMU a 70-69 lead with a little over four seconds left.
Key inbounded, Sexton took off and found glory as well as the bottom of the net. Sexton showed some of everything in the game, leading the way with 27 points on 9-16 shooting, 3-6 from deep as well as 6-7 from the free throw line. For good measure he threw in five rebounds and three assists. Ingram showed his importance with 13 points and nine rebounds, with three assists. ‘Bama went on a nice run with Ingram running the point and Sexton at off guard for extended periods of time. Hall was the only other player in double figures with 11 points and five rebounds, one of his better games in the last two weeks. Smith played 23 minutes and contributed eight points and three rebounds. Herbert Jones showed why he was missed so much in the last game, doing a little bit of everything, and playing outstanding defense. The Greensboro native had six points, three rebounds, two blocks, and three steals. Going forward the Tide will need to get more (something, anything) out of Petty and Key. Petty was 0-5 and failed to score. Key had four points and three rebounds.
Alabama finished the game shooting 28-59 for 48%, including 4-13 (31%) from deep. Free throws continued to be a weakness, 11-16 for 68%. The Tide had 33 rebounds, 11 assists, and 14 turnovers ( 11 in the second half, many of which were careless.) Defensively ‘Bama grabbed nine steals, but only blocked three shots by the bigger Aggies. TAM was 24-61 for 39% including 6-20 for 30% from deep. The free throw line (16-21, 70%) and rebounding gave them a chance to win. The boys from College Station had 44 rebounds- 17 on the offensive end-, and nine blocked shots and six steals to go along with 17 turnovers.
The Tide will take on the number one seed (gag), Auburn Tigers on Friday at noon. The Tide and Tigers split their two games this season, with each winning on their home court. AU is playing the “disrespect card” hard after being snubbed by SEC Coaches and the AP in all conference voting for both players and coach. To me it shows the disdain most have for Pearl and his tactics, because, face it, what he did with his team was truly remarkable. Granted they didn't have “their best two players” because of actions of the coaching staff, not injury. The game can be seen on the SEC Network.
I feel like the Tide is in at this point, but a victory over little bro should cinch things. Also Bama fans need to hope for a limited amount of upsets in conference tournaments to get off the bubble and back into the NCAA Big Dance.
Roll Tide and Buckle Up