Collin Sexton's clutch layup keeps Alabama's NCAA Tournament hopes alive
The Crimson Tide's season appeared to be over until Sexton's buzzer-beater
ST. LOUIS -– It was the very definition of being on the ropes.
Alabama – a young, talented, frustrating group – was sitting at 17-14 at the end of the regular season, and almost certainly outside the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Crimson Tide had stumbled into March by losing its final five regular-season games, and then the team stumbled down the stretch Thursday in a must-win game in the SEC Tournament against Texas A&M.
The Tide had led the entire second half until A&M's T.J. Starks, on a broken pick-and-roll coverage by Alabama, nailed an assassin's 3-pointer with 4.4 seconds left. This put Alabama down a point, and an NCAA Tournament appearance was about to disappear into midair.
The ball was inbounded to – who else? – Alabama's stud freshman point guard, Collin Sexton. The flashy, energetic young man is projected to go in the lottery of the 2018 NBA Draft, and on this afternoon, he showed why. He was the only reason this inconstant Alabama team was in position to win this game and potentially make the tournament anyway. To this point, he had put his team on his back, scoring 25 efficient points, hitting three 3-pointers, dishing out five assists and rarely turning the ball over.
He caught the ball near the baseline with a running start. His dribble was high at halfcourt, but he got it under control. He dashed around a defender and into a surprisingly open lane, jumped up and extended his arm. A finger-roll to keep this team's NCAA Tournament hopes alive. The buzzer went off. Texas A&M's Robert Williams pulled his arm back from blocking the shot, fearing a goaltend.
Alabama 71, Texas A&M 70.
What we saw was the potential of this Alabama team that's been there since the beginning of the season – potential that's always been there but rarely been realized. Putting 40 minutes of consistent basketball together isn't easy for anyone, but it's extraordinarily difficult for a team that's as reliant on underclassmen as Alabama is. Only three teams in the country are less experienced than Alabama; two of those teams are the nation's preeminent practitioners of the one-and-done system, Kentucky and Duke.
It's even more difficult to put together an NCAA Tournament resume when you have a team that struggles with the central point of the game of basketball: Putting the big orange ball in the bucket. Despite a team that's filled with NBA talent, size and athletes, shooting has been this team's biggest problem. The Crimson Tide rank 305th in the nation in 3-point percentage (32.3 percent) and 312th in the nation in free-throw percentage (66.9 percent). Their only player to shoot better than 32 percent from 3-point range is freshman John Petty.
Usually with teams this young – John Calipari's hyper-athletic Kentucky teams generally excluded – the struggles come with playing team defense. This has not been the explanation behind Alabama's struggles. You might even consider this team as having elite defense; Alabama ranks 14th in the nation in defensive efficiency, with junior Donta Hall manning the paint as one of the better shot-blockers in the nation.
Offensively? Yikes. Alabama ranks 120th in the country in offensive efficiency. It's not just that they don't make shots; it's that they look bad doing it. It's one of the most stagnant offenses out there, just a bunch of standing around and trying to have one dude make a play.
Luckily for Alabama, against the Aggies that one dude was Collin Sexton. And Collin Sexton was making plays. Coach Avery Johnson didn't need to draw up a play for him to make. He just needed to tell him to make a play.
"We called that timeout, and coach just told me to race it up the floor and get to the basket," Sexton said. "He knew how fast I could get there, so he said just get to the basket and get a layup for us. When you're in the gym sometimes and you just imagine stuff like that happens, and you've always got to be prepared for that. When you're doing home drills and stuff, you weave through and try to get to the basket. So it was just like practice."
I don't know if this win gets Alabama into the NCAA Tournament. Brackets are complicated math, and bubble teams are moving targets. The Tide might need another win Friday against rival Auburn to secure a bid. It's a game they can win, certainly.
But I do know this: With 4.4 seconds left, Alabama's chances at a bid were slipping away. Lose this game and their chances were nil. Then the ball was inbounded to Sexton, and he dashed the length of the court, extended his right arm, and as that buzzer sounded, Alabama was suddenly alive again.
"It's motivating," Johnson said. "They understand that there are not a lot of chances left no matter how far you go. Even if you go to the very end, you're going to play ten games or less, right? I've been asking is the areas we've been asking you to improve in, first of all, your body language, attitude, your concentration level, your passion for the game, responding to adversity – I've been asking you to do that for a long time. Let's do it today. Let's do it today, and let's see what happens.
"We were a different team coming into this game," he continued. "So even if we weren't successful, at least we were here in terms of our attitude. But that was a great shot."
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