I’ll agree to disagree with Grant Hill.

In the final seconds of UConn’s Final Four victory against Alabama, the Final Four color commentator and former Duke star put a bow on the Tide’s showing against the defending champs.

“It almost feels like a win when you play them this tough and this close like Alabama has,” Hill said.

Alabama didn’t arrive in Glendale, Ariz. with intentions of merely hanging tough with the historically dominant, immovable object that is Dan Hurley’s UConn squad. It arrived with intentions of dethroning it and shocking the world. It wasn’t almost like a win. It was a loss. It was a season-ending loss for the Tide. To say it was “almost like a win” disrespects who this Alabama team was and how it believed it could cut down the nets.

For about 35 minutes on Saturday night, you saw why Nate Oats’ squad wasn’t after a moral victory. It was after a title.

It just ran into the immovable object.

UConn is that good. Like, good enough to eat punch after punch from the Tide and still bounce back with haymakers. Alabama was the first team in the NCAA Tournament that showed it could actually stay in the ring and not suffer an early-round knockout at the hands of the Huskies.

Frail, that wasn’t. Alabama gave one final example of why Charles Barkley was incorrect in his unbiased assessment of the Tide at the start of the NCAA Tournament (he later admitted he was wrong about that). It takes a different level of toughness to hang with UConn.

Remember, the Huskies were the team entering Saturday night that:

  • A) Held a 30-point lead in every NCAA Tournament game
  • B) Held a +111 scoring advantage in NCAA Tournament games entering the Final Four (No. 4 all-time)
  • C) Trailed for 28 seconds in NCAA Tournament
  • D) Was the first defending champ to reach the Final Four since 2007 Florida
  • E) All the above

It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”

I’ll instead agree to agree with Ian Eagle’s assessment in the final seconds that a 14-point outcome didn’t tell the story of this game. It wasn’t just the 4-point Alabama deficit at halftime, which happened even though the Tide shot a blistering 8-for-11 from 3-point range to that point. It was the fact that UConn’s first double-digit lead of the night came with 5 minutes to play.

If there was a play that embodied Alabama’s toughness on Saturday night, Grant Nelson attacking 7-footer Donovan Clingan was it:

Nothing frail about that.

But even though that was in the midst of another Nelson scoring flurry, it was a different story than the run he sparked to take down UNC in the Sweet 16. That’s because you can only attack Clingan so many times before he eventually starts becoming the enforcer (Illinois coach Brad Underwood had to learn that the hard way in the Elite Eight).

Still, though. Clingan blocked 2 shots in the first 2 minutes on Saturday night. Did it change the entire flow of the Tide offense? Not to the level that UConn was used to.

You could sense the urgency in Hurley at halftime when he said at halftime that the goal was to break the Tide. Sure, UConn eventually broke Oats’ squad in the form of some sort of Clingan dunk in transition late, or perhaps it was the Alex Karaban 3 that proved to be the dagger.

But it took far longer for UConn to truly flex its UConn muscles than we were used to seeing.

It would’ve helped if Alabama could’ve continued to shoot at a 72% clip from deep, or if it could’ve at least shot 50% from the floor, it could’ve joined the 3 teams who beat UConn with that formula. The Huskies were 35-0 when holding opponents to less than 50% and 0-3 when they didn’t. Alabama finished at 44.8%.

It happens. It happens a lot against UConn.

RELATED: At FanDuel, UConn opened as a 6.5-point favorite over Purdue for Monday’s big-time showdown

It’s easy to look at the dynamics of the Final Four matchup and treat Alabama like the plucky underdog who should indeed celebrate something that “almost felt like a win.” We know that it was the Tide’s first trip to a Final Four and UConn was trying to punch its 6th ticket to an NCAA Tournament National Championship. It would’ve been bizarre if Alabama wasn’t a double-digit underdog.

At the same time, didn’t that showing prove to the world that Alabama wasn’t close to a Cinderella? It was a juggernaut in its own right that deserved to share the court with UConn.

It had an All-American in Mark Sears, who fittingly shook off a quiet start with his usual 24-point effort. It had other crafty, upperclassmen transfers in Nelson and Aaron Estrada, who were a major reason why UConn couldn’t shake the Tide until late. It had improved, physical defenders in Nick Pringle and Rylan Griffen, who were at the forefront of Alabama’s defensive emergence in the NCAA Tournament.

Most importantly, Alabama had Oats, who made us rethink what was possible for Alabama basketball.

It’s now unfair to put a ceiling on the program. After all, the Tide had 9 new players, 3 new assistants and 4 new support staff members to replace from last year’s No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Oats found the right mix of guys to unlock the best parts of his system. They won’t always peak in March like this team, but in many ways, this should’ve been a “floor” year at worst and a transitional year at best.

We’ll wait and see which Alabama players return. No matter what, there should be a bit of blind optimism. Before the Tide gave UConn its toughest game of the NCAA Tournament during this 2-year run, Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy ranked Alabama No. 1 in his way-too-early Top 25 for 2024-25. The future is bright. It should be. Alabama is 1 of 6 programs in America that went to 3 Sweet 16s during the 2020s decade. To think that Oats did that with an entirely different squad than the group that we saw in 2020-21 speaks to his ability to continue to recruit to his system.

There’ll be time to figure out what’s next for Oats and Co. There was no looking ahead or looking back on Saturday night, though. Alabama stayed in the present. In doing so, it might’ve made more believers out of people like Hill who didn’t give the Tide much of a chance to go blow for blow with the mighty Huskies.

This season was a win for Alabama basketball, even if there wasn’t a victory to be had on Saturday night.

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