The Alabama Crimson Tide improved to 4-0 on the season, despite being “held” to a season-low 98 points. The Tide entered the contest averaging 102 points a game. Meanwhile, Mercer fell to 1-3 with the loss.
It was another strong defensive effort for the Tide against a clearly outmatched opponent, with Alabama consciously driving the lane to generate points near the rim. An outstanding first half gave way to a sloppy, turnover-filled second frame, where the Tide went very cold, very suddenly from the perimeter. Alabama’s back court was in foul trouble much of the first half, and it revealed one weakness that perhaps few had considered: after Ponch and Marc, who are the ballhandlers?
Coach Nate Oats sent out the regular starting line up of Mark Sears, Aaron Estrada, Nick Pringle, Rylan Griffen, and Grant Nelson.
Sears began the scoring with a drive to the basket (an occurrence that happened many times in the half), before Mercer took their first and only lead of the season on a three-point basket. Nelson hit a triple to put Bama ahead for good, and things rolled from there. Pringle was strong around the rim and Sears and others drove to the hoop with impunity, for an early 13-3 lead.
Mercer called a timeout and shortly after, Estrada was called for his second foul of the game. Latrell Wrightsell replaced Estrada, who played only 5:48 in the half after later drawing his third foul. With Estrada sidelined, Sears played more minutes in the first than he typically does.
Sears then drew his second foul, forcing Oats to make do without a true point guard for a time.
At one point, the lineup consisted of 6’3” Wrightsell, 6’10” Mohamed Wague, 6’10” Sam Walters, 6’11” Jaren Stevenson, and 6’11” Nelson. This Tide is so versatile, and most guys can and do play multiple positions.
Oats leaned into his depth tonight, with Sam Walters, Jarin Stevenson, and Davin Cosby all contributing in the period. Sears drove and made a hoop at the buzzer to give the Tide a lead of 56-29 at the break.
At halftime Bama had blistered the nets to the tune of 23-29 for 79%, 6-8 from deep for 75% and 4-6 for 67% from the free throw line. The home team grabbed 18 rebounds, had nine assists, one steal, two blocks, and committed four turnovers. Individually, Sears had 19 points with five assists and three rebounds. Stevenson accounted for eight points while making 2-2 from deep.
Mercer shot 35% on 10-29 in the first, including 3-9 from three point range and made 6-11 free throws for 55%. The Bears totaled 10 rebounds, with five assists, three steals, three blocked shots, and only three turnovers. Robby Carmody and Amanze Ngumezi both tallied eight points to lead Mercer.
The Tide sent the starting five out for the second half and began the half in a sloppy manner, which continued throughout the period. With 13:56 left the Tide had only scored nine second half points and led 65-41. Pringle and Stevenson helped a Bama run with dunks and lay-ins by the former, and three-point shots from the latter.
A late scoring push put the Tide on the verge of their fourth straight 100 point game, but ‘Bama alas fell short after several missed free throws, and a few empty possessions ended in turnovers.
In the second half, the Tide cooled off to 12-30 for 40% and only 2-11 for 18% from three point land, while making 16-23 free throws for 70%.
Overall, Bama shot 35-49 for 59%, 8-19 from three for 42%, and 20-29 for 69% from the charity stripe. Bama had 44 rebounds, two blocks, six steals, 16 assists, and turned it over 11 times in the game.
Sears was named Player of the Game and led the way with 24 points, five rebounds, and six assists, all in 24 minutes of action. Pringle had one of the best games of his career with 14 points and six rebounds, a steal, and two blocks, which helped him garner the Hard Hat Award for the game. Pringle logged 19 minutes.
Stevenson, who skipped his senior year of high school, continued his growth and knocked in 14 points on 5-7 shooting in 18 minutes. Estrada joined the trio in double digits with 10 points and added four assists in 18 minutes. Nelson had his second subpar scoring game with five points, but led the team with seven rebounds.
For the second game in a row Oats used 11 players for at least 10 minutes in the game.
Mercer improved to 16-35 in the second for 46% including 0-5 from deep, and made only 6-12 from the free throw line. Overall the Bears shot 26-64 for 49%, 3-14 for 21% from there, and 12-23 for 52% on freebies. Mercer had 30 rebounds, seven assists, six steals, three blocks, and committed nine turnovers. Jalyn McCreary scored 17 points and had eight rebounds to lead the team in both categories.
Coach Oats was pleased with the victory but said that the team “needs to close out games better.” The 5th year coach said he feels he has the “best backcourt in America” in Estrada and Sears. Then he warned that the rotation would start tightening up soon as the schedule difficulty ramps up, expecting Sears to play more minutes than the 24 he logged tonight.
This team is so much fun to watch: Interchangeable guys that seem to love to play the game, and don't care who gets the credit. If one or two players have an off-game, there are plenty of others to pick up the slack.
It should be noted that one of the things that sets this team apart from many of Oats’s prior squads — aside from the diversity — is the veteran leadership. If the lineup stands pat, Alabama will be rolling out three Seniors, a grad transfer, and a RS Sophomore. As we saw last year in the Elite Eight, that kind of experience can make a world of difference. Indeed, it did to teams like San Diego State, UConn, and Creighton.
Another thing to watch going forward is if Estrada and Sears both get into foul trouble, who becomes the next man up as the primary ball handler? The issue arose late in the first half, and the Tide looked disjointed for a few minutes. Wrightsell looks to be the best choice in that situation. And while Nelson has great handles for a stretch four, he’s not who you want running the offense.
Alabama enjoys a little break until it travels to Destin next week to face the Ohio State Buckeyes for the Emerald Coast Classic. The game tips at 6 p.m. CT, and will be shown on CBSSN.
The winner of that one will play the winner of Oregon-Santa Clara at 6 p.m. on Saturday, while the loser will play at 3 p.m. (I’ll be in attendance for the Ohio State game on Friday.)