PITTSBURGH – John Petty felt good about his shot late in the first half against Virginia Tech. That was when he knocked down his second 3-pointer.
“When I hit the first one in the corner, it felt good,” he said. “But I kind of thought it was off. When I hit the second one from the baseline, that’s when I knew it was probably game time.”
Galin Smith didn’t have to wait that long before he knew his teammate was hot.
“All he needs is one,” Smith said. “He just needs one and after that, it’s over with. The rest of them are going down.”
Alabama needed all six of Petty’s 3-pointers on Thursday night to beat Virginia Tech 86-83. He went 6-for-8 from deep, including 3-for-3 in the first half on his way to 20 points on the night.
It was Alabama’s first NCAA tournament win since beating Marquette 90-85 in 2006. The Crimson Tide (20-15) will advance to face top-seeded Villanova at 11:10 a.m. central time on Saturday in the second round.
Petty’s shooting was critical, especially in the first half. Virginia Tech shot a scorching 17-for-25 from the field (68 percent), including 7-for-9 from 3-point range. But the Hokies could never extend a lead on Alabama hung within two possessions the entire half by going 16-for-27 from the field.
“We knew you can’t make shots like that the whole game,” Petty said. “They shot the ball tremendous in the first half. We just took it one possession at a time, kept it down.”
Petty hit his third three with one second left before halftime, making sure Alabama entered the locker room trailing 43-41. Alabama’s adjustments at halftime limited the Hokies to 44.8 percent from the field and 2-for-9 from 3-point range in the second half. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide kept up the attack.
The battle continued until the final minute. The two teams were tied 10 times and traded the lead 10 times.
“Collin and Petty, Herb Jones, with his defense, Galin Smith, a lot of the your freshman now are turning the corner a little bit, and they know they got to grow up,” coach Avery Johnson said. “This is the perfect time of the season for us, if they don’t do what we ask them to do and respond, they know they’re not going to advance.”
Freshman guard Collin Sexton struggled early but recovered as Alabama inched ahead in the second half. He picked up two fouls in the first eight minutes, forcing him to the bench. He was just 1-for-4 in the first half for three points, but roared back in the second half to finish with a game-high 25 points. He shot 6-for-10 after the break, including 10-for-14 at the free throw line. He also had six assists, though he turned the ball over five times.
“They had to play him and they had to play me,” Petty said. “That’s a tough situation to be in on defense.”
Alabama also got a boost with the return of forward Donta Hall, who sat out the SEC tournament loss in concussion protocol. He started the game finished with 10 points on 5-for-5 shooting.
Petty wasn’t the only bench player to step up for Alabama. Smith was 4-for-5 from the field with three rebounds in 19 minutes. Avery Johnson Jr. added eight points, helping fill in while Sexton was in early foul trouble.
“When you get in a 911 situation on the floor, you don’t have time to call a cute play with three and five seconds,” Johnson said. “Players have to make plays. That’s why you recruit them. You recruit them that if they’re in a situation where you need them to solve a problem, then solve the problem. Don’t look at the coach. Fortunately, Petty solved some problems for us tonight. Collin solved some problems for us tonight. I could go on and on.”
Petty said his toughest 3-pointer wasn’t the one just before halftime. It came in the second half, when he launched a shot well behind the arc at the end of the shot clock with a defender right in front of him.
Alabama’s biggest lead all night was seven points. The Crimson Tide couldn’t breathe even in the final minute. Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams was called for a technical foul after Hokie point guard Justin Robinson was whistled for an offensive foul.
“I thought it was a block,” Williams said. “John Cal, who I’ve known forever was at the game. He told me later that it was the charge. So, he said it was the right call.”
Sexton made one of two free throws after the technical. Virginia Tech made a 3-pointer after the foul shots to cut the lead to four, but Sexton put the game on ice late. He made seven free throws in the final minute. That made sure Alabama would move on.
“This will be a long night,” Johnson said. “I normally only average two hours of sleep. I’ll maybe sleep 30 minutes and just have a bunch of coffee, but it’s a good problem to have.”
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.