Alabama has its bench to thank for surviving a head-scratching (but victorious) Round 1 performance
Down 2 points with roughly 3/4 of their Round 1 matchup in the books, Alabama was a team desperate for answers.
It wasn’t going to come via the 3-point shot, of which the Crimson Tide made more than anyone in America in the regular season but atypically struggled in that area on Saturday. It wasn’t going to come just from defending the 3-point shot, of which Nate Oats’ squad actually did particularly well against Iona. It wasn’t going to come from senior John Petty, who at one point looked like he was so frustrated he could’ve squeezed the air out of the ball.
If Alabama was going to avoid following in the footsteps of Ohio State and getting stunned by a 15-seed, the answer had to come from somewhere else.
The answer came, and perhaps fittingly, in the form of a bench surge of epic proportions. After that deficit, Alabama’s bench trio of Juwan Gary, Jahvon Quinerly and Alex Reese scored 16 of the next 18 points to finally offer up some breathing room. Without that, Alabama’s stay in Indianapolis would’ve been a brief one.
Whether it was Reese knocking down threes from the top of the key, Quinerly knifing through the teeth of the defense and finishing at the rim or Gary throwing down an alley-oop slam (from Quinerly), the bench did the heavy lifting when it counted. Quinerly even provided the dagger up-and-under layup to put the game on ice in the final minute:
— 🌹🏆 (@RespectDaBeard1) March 20, 2021
That’s not to take away anything from the ever-valuable Herb Jones, who had a game-high 20 points, including the only 2 non-bench points during that 18-point surge (that came on a breakaway dunk). That was Jones’ third 20-point game of his career and his second in as many games. Without his ability to do the little things (offensive boards, deflections, dump-off passes, etc.), Alabama probably doesn’t win that game. But that wasn’t a game in which Jones’ offense was going to be enough.
Strange, it was, to see an Alabama team make life so difficult on itself for the majority of the afternoon. In the first half, the Crimson Tide had 8 missed layups, 10 turnovers and they posted a 2-for-10 clip from 3-point range.
Saturday was a grind, and not necessarily one that screamed “ready for March.” Time will tell if that’ll be just the shake-off-the-rust game. Lord knows it’s better to be where Alabama is now than where Ohio State is.
It’s pretty clear, though. Petty getting through his mental rut is a massive piece to Alabama’s Final Four puzzle. Even the casual observer should’ve been able to see the senior’s visible frustration.
After Petty started 1-for-7 with 3 turnovers in the first half, he had a sequence in the first minute of the second half that was a microcosm of his forgettable day. He got to the free-throw line on a shooting foul and missed both. Alabama got a rebound on the offensive glass, and Petty got a chance to redeem himself, but he turned it over and fueled an Iona fast break. Petty didn’t pout, though. He got back on defense and blocked the transition layup … only to watch the rebound go right to an Iona player for an easy putback.
It was that kind of day for Petty, who is now 11-for-41 shooting and 7-for-26 from 3-point range in his last 4 games. The guy who led the SEC in 3-pointers this year suddenly looks lost from deep.
Fortunately for the Crimson Tide, all 4 of those games were wins. Can Alabama win 4 more games with Petty struggling from the floor? That, we don’t know.
What we do know is that much like Arkansas, who experienced an early scare of its own before cruising to a double-digit win in Round 1, Alabama got some valuable tournament experience.
Petty, Jones and Reese are 3 years removed from their first and only NCAA Tournament trip. Saturday’s win marked the first time since that 2018 win against Virginia Tech that Alabama advanced to the Round of 32. Quinerly never played in an NCAA Tournament game during his lone year at Villanova while Gary, Keon Ellis and Jaden Shackelford also made their NCAA debuts on Saturday. Go figure that Jordan Bruner — the grad transfer from Yale — actually has more NCAA Tournament experience (1 game) than the majority of Alabama’s rotation.
Inexperience isn’t a valid excuse this time of year, especially not for a 2-seed with legitimate Final Four aspirations like Alabama. Bad shooting days don’t usually coincide with beating quality teams in March, which Iona proved to be. Alabama won a game in which it made just 5 shots from 3-point range, which was its second-lowest single-game total of the season. The team built on 3-pointers and shots at the rim missed far too many of both such attempts.
Oats knows that’s not a recipe he wants to repeat the rest of the way. As inexperienced as his team is in March, he’s the one who has been to the NCAA Tournament 4 times in his 6 years as a head coach. This little postgame exchange was telling:
Nate Oats said a C is being generous.
— Michael Casagrande (@ByCasagrande) March 20, 2021
It’ll take a better version of Alabama to continue to survive and advance. Nobody has to tell Oats that. The Crimson Tide might have a high floor, but now is the time of year to show that high ceiling. There’s still an opportunity for that.
Six days ago, Alabama celebrated an SEC Championship after grinding out a win against an upset-hungry LSU team. Quinerly said after accepting his SEC Tournament MVP trophy that “the job’s not finished. We’re not done yet.”
Without Quinerly and Co. providing that spark, Alabama could’ve been done in Round 1. It’s not.
It has those guys who came off the socially-distanced bench to thank for that.