ST. LOUIS — With 4.4 seconds left to play, Texas A&M’s T.J. Starks ripped the heart out of Alabama basketball.
In 4.3 seconds, Collin Sexton performed a transplant.
The Crimson Tide’s flashy freshman guard covered most of the 94 feet of the basketball court in that time, lofted a floating shot at the buzzer and breathed life back into the Alabama basketball season, lifting UA to a 71-70 victory in Thursday action at the Southeastern Conference Tournament at the ScottTrade Arena.
Whether that shot merely gave Alabama’s NCAA hopes a one-day extension or propels the Crimson Tide into the field depends on a person’s choice of bracketologists. What it definitely did was place Alabama in a quarterfinal game against No. 1 seed Auburn on Friday at noon.
Even that opportunity seemed to have vanished when Starks hit a clutch 3-pointer with 4.6 seconds to go to give the Aggies, who had trailed by 10 points with just over nine minutes to play, a 70-68 lead.
But Sexton, who had dueled with Starks all day, answered the challenge.
“When you’re in the gym sometimes and you just imagine stuff like that happens, and you’ve always got to be prepared for that,” Sexton said. “When you’re doing home drills and stuff, you weave through and try to get to the basket. So it was just like practice.
“Coach just told me to race it up the floor and get to the basket. He knew how fast I could get there, so he said just get to the basket and get a layup for us.”
“Well, the main thing was we wanted to get him in space,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. “We work on a lot of those end-of-game situations. They executed it. (John) Petty and Dazon did what they were supposed to do. Braxton (Key) got him the ball on time and on target. Then it’s just a foot race.
Fortunately, they had someone on the in-bounds passer (so they) had one less defender in the back.
“Give Collin a lot of credit. Those type of shots right there may turn a guy’s season around and give — we’ve had a lot of bad news over the last ten days in terms of this (five-game losing) streak. So fortunately, we got a break, and we got some good news. He made a great play.”
Sexton, who finished with 27 points, his highest scoring output against an SEC opponent so far this season, carried the Crimson Tide offensively for most of the game and had three crucial baskets in the final minute, breaking ties twice before hitting the game-winner.
Alabama (18-14) led by as many as 12 points in the second half but went on a late scoring drought that saw the Aggies rally and tie the game twice in the late going before taking the lead on Starks’ 3-pointer. The Aggie freshman guard finished with 23 points.
Dazon Ingram had 13 points for Alabama and Donta Hall added 11 for UA. Texas A&M (20-12) outrebounded Alabama 44-33 and outscored UA 19-4 on second-chance points, but somehow Alabama survived.
I’m as proud of them as I’ve been since I’ve been here at Alabama for obvious reasons,” Johnson said. “They fought hard. They responded to adversity. We got stuck against their zone in the second half, but they just persevered. We had our moments where we looked like a really dominant team in certain stretches today, but take your hats off to our team. They were strong mentally.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.