MBB Recap | ‘Make this season special’: Alabama’s one shining moment comes to an end

Alabama lost to the UCLA Bruins in overtime, 88–78.

Photo+courtesy+of+Alabama+Athletics

Photo courtesy of Alabama Athletics

Alexander Plant | @aplant63, Sports Editor

Hinkle Fieldhouse was hotly contested territory Sunday night. Alabama and UCLA swapped runs back and forth, and every sudden boom of energy died out within minutes, sometimes seconds, for the Crimson Tide. Then, when Alabama’s down three points with just 4.5 seconds left: senior forward Alex Reese subs in. And with just two short passes of the ball, he sinks a three from way beyond the arc. Regulation ends with a 65–65 score.

It seemed like the momentum was finally back on Alabama’s side. But the Bruins came into overtime aggressive, dominating the final stretch and ending the game with a 10-point lead.

“We weren’t good enough to beat them tonight. They were better,” coach Nate Oats said after the game. “They hit some tough shots. Give a lot of credit to their players too. We had all the momentum going in overtime. They could have folded. They didn’t, kind of punched us in the mouth to start overtime.”

What went wrong?

Alabama shot 11–25 from the free-throw line. A team making 100% of its free throws is unlikely, but Sunday’s ratio was out of character for Alabama. The team typically makes about 72% of its free throws.

“To me, free throws are always a mental thing. It’s the same distance,” Oats said. “There’s zero variables in free throws other than the pressure you put on yourself mentally. It’s disappointing because, you know, if we make them, we win the game. It hurts to lose a game knowing, if you make free throws, you win.”

Senior forward Herb Jones was off his game. He got into foul trouble 40 seconds into the game and had to play more passively on the defensive end from there on out. Jones never got into a rhythm and only shot six times. He missed five free throws, two in the last seconds of regulation. 

UCLA set the pace. Alabama could not get into a flow throughout the second half and overtime. The Bruins hit some extremely difficult shots to keep the momentum in their favor.

“You look at UCLA’s tempo, they’re one of the slowest teams in the country,” Oats said. “They try to muck things up a little bit, make it different. You can’t speed them up on offense without gambling a lot on defense. We’re not a gambling team. We’re third in the country in defensive efficiency coming into this game. We’re a good defensive team. They hit some tough shots.”

Who’s leaving?

Jones, senior guard John Petty Jr. and Reese all played their last games for Alabama. After four years, every player and coach on the team only spoke highly of the impact that they have had on Alabama basketball. Oats gave all the credit to those three and graduate transfer Jordan Bruner after the game and said that they helped establish Alabama’s excellence this year.

“You can make the argument we’re one of the best, if not the best, Alabama basketball teams in history,” Oats said. “I mean, won the SEC regular season, the tournament. There’s all kinds of records that were taking place.”

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Petty struggled shooting from the floor in his first two games in the NCAA Tournament. However, he found his groove in the second half against UCLA and finished with 16 points. Though it wasn’t the finish he wanted, Petty said he’s proud of what the team accomplished this year.

“I just want to be remembered as a winner,” Petty said. “That’s all I wanted to do when I got here. No matter what it took, what I had to do, I just wanted to win. I wanted to make this school, make this season special. That’s exactly why I came back, and that’s exactly what we did.”

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Reese became a huge part of Alabama’s post-season success. His sacrifice in coming off the bench this season was the epitome of Oats’ philosophy. Reese’s selflessness was the example that Oats used all season long to push the team to play for each other and not themselves. Oats said Reese had his game-tying three in him.

“There’s a reason he was in the game at the end. He hit another big shot,” Oats said. “I’m really proud of him, proud of his character, proud of everything he’s become. I’m glad he hit the three.”

Oats said that Alabama basketball is now in great hands after the departure of Petty, Jones and Reese. The Crimson Tide fully expect to be playing late into March next season.

“I’ll remember [this team] as the team that changed the entire culture of Alabama basketball,” Oats said. “I told our guys, I’m going to be talking about this team for the next 30 years I’m coaching. This is an unbelievable team with a bunch of high-character kids that stepped up to the challenge and changed the entire narrative of Alabama basketball.”

What’s next for Alabama men’s basketball?

Alabama fans should expect to see many returning players in the 2021-22 season, including:

Keon Ellis, who is one of the best defenders on the team. Ellis had at least one steal or block in the last five games. He’s a solid wing defender who can also rebound and push the pace on the offensive side of the ball. Ellis and Jones tallied the most rebounds against UCLA, with nine a piece.

Jaden Shackelford, who is a great isolation basketball player and the best pull-up shooter on the team. The former SEC Freshman of the Year is set to be one of the focal points of the offense next season. 

Jahvon Quinerly, who is the best finisher and clutch player on the team. Quinerly is one of the best dribble-drive guards in the country. 

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Josh Primo, who is a great two-way guard and potential future sixth man. Primo has well-rounded talent, and he excels at anything on the floor, from shooting to defense. 

Juwan Gary, who is the heart of the team. When Gary is on the floor, the team plays faster, with an elevated level of intensity. He will likely be the defensive anchor next season.

The Crimson Tide also have the No. 17 recruiting class of 2021, which features No.1 point guard JD Davison. 

“Recruiting is different. People want to come here and play for Alabama basketball,” Oats said. “People think about Alabama basketball way differently. Expectation levels are drastically different.”

After the game, Petty spoke about what is next in his career. He said he plans to pursue a career in the NBA, but wants to relax for a short period of time before he gets ready for the draft. 

“I really don’t have any immediate plans,” Petty said. “I’m just going to take some time, get back, see my family, my kids and just enjoy and rest up some.” 

Oats said he’s ready and motivated for next season. He wants to take Alabama further into March Madness and create a long-lasting winning culture. 

“We’ve got some really big-time recruits coming in. The future of Alabama basketball is in a great spot, I would hope,” Oats said. “As a coach, it’s going to motivate me. We’ve got to figure out what to do better. There’s obviously stuff I could have done better in this game, and I want to figure it out.” 

Petty completely agreed with Oats’ thoughts after the game. Petty said he understands the potential of the young players like Primo and Gary and thinks they have the talent to repeat as SEC champions next season.

“I definitely expect them to be right here at this position or even farther, just with the talent level that we have coming here recruiting and just the experience our guys are going to have coming in next year—the guys that actually played minutes, like Jaden Shackelford, Jahvon Quinerly, Juwan Gary,” Petty said.