The NIT, whether the men’s version or the women’s, is often an event where a basketball team gets out what it puts in. The early rounds may have talent mismatches, but as the tournament goes on, the outcome often depends as much on effort, energy and interest as it does on ability.
For a young team building a program, it can be a stepping stone. For a team that’s accustomed to NCAA play, or felt it deserved a bid that wasn’t forthcoming, sometimes motivation is a problem.
So when Alabama started its third-round WNIT game against Georgia Tech with a 24-7 deficit midway through the second quarter, the natural reaction might have been to shrug and chalk it up to a long season, a good opponent (Tech eliminated Alabama from last year’s WNIT) and some understandable mental fatigue.
Kristy Curry, the Crimson Tide head coach, saw it differently.
“We missed a lot of easy shots,” she said. “Then we would let that affect us getting stops on the other end, and we’d let that affect our next possession on offense.
“I was pretty honest with them in the huddles. I wasn’t ugly but I told them they needed to own their mistakes.”
Then, a couple of things happened. First, Alabama seemed to hit on the right roster combination. To her credit, Curry has been committed to giving most of the players on the roster a fair amount of floor time during the WNIT — a reward for the seniors, added experience for the younger players. Amber Richardson and Meo Knight came off the bench, were active defensively and brought energy.
When they did, the crowd — not huge, but loyal and energetic in much the way Alabama men’s home crowds have been in NIT games — responded. If there had been any thought of letting the season end quietly and mercifully, the noise seemed to inject a different attitude into the players.
“I want to really thank our crowd,” Curry said. “It was a pretty afternoon, lots of activities in Tuscaloosa but they turned out.
“Our kids played for (the “Alabama” on) the front of their jerseys tonight and the crowd really got behind that. It made the difference.”
Alabama needed every ounce of it, falling behind again late in the fourth quarter (by six points, not 17) and rallying once more, setting the stage for late heroics by Knight, who slashed across the lane and made a tie-breaking layup with 5.5 seconds left in a 61-59 win, the kind of postseason drama that had everything except a 98-year old nun.
The three wins in the WNIT have lifted Alabama to 20 wins, which is a solid total. UA now has to go on the road to face Virginia Tech, a team that beat Georgia Tech in ACC play (and, ironically, one who’s men’s team was bounced from the NCAA Tournament by Alabama.) After that, it’s wait-and-see but the new WNIT format could give Alabama another home game if it finds a way to win.
The rebuilding process for Curry has been a long one, by necessity, and it will be interesting to see how Alabama responds in 2019. There are a number of departing seniors, although the incoming recruiting class may mean a higher talent level with less experience. Alabama was close to bigger things than the WNIT this season, and a return to NCAA play would be the next logical step. But Thursday night was another bit of positive momentum for the Crimson Tide program.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.