No. 8 Alabama took down the nation's top-ranked team for the second time this season as the Crimson Tide rallied from a 15-point deficit in the second half for a 71-65 win at No. 1 Houston. With the win, Alabama becomes the first team with multiple wins over top-ranked teams before New Year's Day since Duke did it in 1965-66, according to ESPN. The Crimson Tide also knocked off North Carolina in a four-overtime thriller on Nov. 27 when the Tar Heels were No. 1.
The setting made Saturday's outcome all the more impressive for Alabama as a record crowd of 7,718 at Ferttita Center witnessed the first-ever top-10 meeting at Houston's home arena. Though freshman phenom Brandon Miller struggled to an 0-for-8 day from the floor, other freshmen stepped up for the Crimson Tide in the hostile environment.
Noah Clowney led the way with 16 while Jaden Bradley added 12 as Alabama clawed its way back from the 44-29 deficit against a Houston team that entered allowing fewer points per game than any team in the nation. Down the stretch, it was Alabama's defense that looked like the nation's best as the Crimson Tide held Houston without a field goal for over over five minutes with the game on the line. An Alabama team that committed 12 turnovers in the first half committed only three in the second while making its own case for consideration as the nation's No. 1 team.
Houston used an 18-2 run over the end of the first half and beginning of the second to take control of the game. It seemed like the Cougars were in the process of dismantling Alabama with their defense, much like they had done to every opponent during a 9-0 start. No one had scored more than 56 points against Houston until Saturday, and it seemed unlikely the Crimson Tide would pass that threshold as they struggled to find clean looks.
Fittingly, however, it was a freshman who scored to snap the run as Clowney hit a jumper at the 16:17 mark to stop the bleeding for Alabama. During the second half, four different freshmen each came up huge for the Crimson Tide even as Miller struggled from the field. The nation's No. 4 class totaled 29 of Alabama's 44 points in the half, and Miller eventually made his mark as well.
The 6-foot-9 phenom drilled 8 of 9 free throws, including six in the final minute, to help ice the game. In total, freshmen accounted for 19 of the team's final 22 points.
While Alabama's 44 second-half points against Houston stood out, the Crimson Tide would not have pulled off the win without stellar defense down the stretch. After a Reggie Chaney dunk with 5:34 remaining, Houston did not score from the field again until just 13 seconds remained. The Cougars made just 1 of their final 8 shots from the floor.
AAC Preseason Player of the Year Marcus Sasser finished just 2 of 11 from the field, and fellow guard Tramon Mark fouled out with 8:09 remaining. That left Jamal Shead to carry a heavy load for Houston. He finished with a game-high 19 points on 8-of-20 shooting but missed his final six shots. Fatigue may have been a factor for Shead, who tied a season-high with 38 minutes. The Cougars finished just 3 of 13 from beyond the arc as a team, underscoring that outside shooting may be a problem for a team that entered shooting a pedestrian 33.8% from 3-point range as a team.
Alabama's place on the national stage
The Crimson Tide figure to climb even higher in the polls on Monday, and they'll have even more chances to validate themselves on the national stage before Christmas. Games with Memphis and No. 18 Gonzaga are on the schedule next week as one of the nation's toughest nonconference schedules winds to a close before SEC play begins on Dec. 28.
Last year's Alabama squad fell short of expectations, finishing unranked and as losers of a first-round NCAA Tournament game after climbing as high as No. 6 in the AP poll during the season. This year's squad appears to have the depth and tenacity to stick as a factor on the national scene.
While the freshmen rightly drew attention in the win over Houston for their poise in a hostile environment, veteran guards such as Mark Sears, Nimari Burnett and Jahvon Quinerly should provide a level of stability that keeps this team from fluctuating like last year's team did.