With four second left in overtime, Alabama was given one last chance to beat Norfolk State and extend its season for at least another game.
Leading by one, the Spartans inbounded the ball under their own basket, but instead of getting the ball in safely and drawing an inevitable foul, Nic Thomas fumbled the pass out of bounds.
A glimmer of hope remained for the Crimson Tide as it set up to inbounds the ball. That glimmer disappeared as Riley Norris’ shot from just inside the three-point line thudded off the rim and the final buzzer sounded, signaling an 80-79 loss in the first round of the NIT and an end to a disappointing season.
With the loss, Alabama, who was a No. 1 seed in the tournament, finished the season with an 18-16 record.
“We wanted to have better results,” coach Avery Johnson said. “I am not hiding from that and I’m very disappointed with the loss tonight and I’m disappointed we couldn’t take that step forward.
Although it was a home game for Alabama, the pregame atmosphere in Coleman Coliseum was more comparable to that of an early season exhibition game than the first contest in a postseason tournament. The lack of energy was evident in the way Alabama was warming up as well, according to Norfolk State’s Steven Whitley.
“Honestly, we saw it in warmups, thought that it was going to be sweet,” Whitley said. “The way they were lagging around and things like that. We talked about it in the locker room and we made sure we came out punch heavy, ready to win.”
Freshman guard Kira Lewis Jr. didn’t think that Alabama’s pregame energy was lacking, but did agree that the Crimson Tide didn’t get off to as quick of a start as it had previously in home games.
“Coming out and playing in the NIT, when the crowd is normally there – I’m not blaming it on them, but playing with the crowd there [we’re] used to up tempo, but when you see not that many people there, and you know it’s an NIT game, so it’s kind of hard to get up for that,” Lewis said.
With Alabama yet to have woken up, Norfolk State led 22-21 with three minutes left before halftime. Then Alex Reese came alive, hitting four straight threes and scoring 14 points to give Alabama a 35-28 lead at the break.
Reese, who finished with 17 points, was Alabama’s offensive catalyst in the first half. That role was played by Herb Jones in the second half. After scoring just one point in the first 20 minutes, Jones put up 17 points in the second and finished as the Crimson Tide’s leading scorer.
Jones was hot in the second half, but Norfolk State’s Derrik Jamerson was on fire. Jamerson scored 14 of his 25 points in the second half, going 4-of-5 from beyond the arc.
“Boy he really got hot in the second half and we lost him a couple times and he looked like the prolific three-point shooter that he is, shooting 52 percent from the line, second in the country,” Johnson said.
Norfolk State tied the game at 40 after going on a 10-0 run. From that point on, it was a back-and-forth battle. Jamerson helped lead the Spartans’ comeback, but their ability to dominant the offensive glass was just as critical. Norfolk State finished with 21 offensive rebounds, which led to 22 second-chance points. Overall, the Spartans outrebounded a larger Alabama team 49-45.
The Spartans had a chance to clinch the win in regulation, but Jordan Butler missed a layup as time expired to keep Alabama’s season alive for a few more minutes.
The Crimson Tide failed to capitalize on the opportunity, suffering from many of the same issues – turnovers, a lack of effort, poor rebounding – that ailed it all season.
“The way we lost this game is some of the reasons why we didn’t make it to the NCAA tournament,” Johnson said.
Despite the disappointing season, and numerous fans calling for him to be replaced on social media, Johnson asserted that he is still committed to coaching Alabama in the future after the game.
He said that he met with Athletic Director Greg Byrne on Saturday to discuss his plans for the program moving forward.
“I love being the coach here at Alabama. That’s my plan. I made that crystal clear to Greg in our meeting. Hopefully they feel the same way. I’m committed to it. I still have time left, obviously, on my contract.”