To their credit, the basketball fans of the University of Alabama — an often-overlooked breed that survives on a thin diet of success and a great deal of glory-day reminiscing — has been loyal to this year’s Crimson Tide.
Stoically bearing disappointment and nurturing hope as the slow-working chemical reaction turns a group of talented individuals into a team, they turned out in sellout numbers again on Saturday. The marquee value of Oklahoma’s Trae Young might have helped the crowd number (15,383) but a great part of the pull was the continued desire to see this Alabama team become the finished product that sparked so many dreams in the offseason.
The team responded.
It wasn’t the first time — after all, this team has beaten league-leading Auburn, among others. There are more challenges ahead, starting with a visit from Missouri on Wednesday. But the 80-73 victory over Oklahoma in one of the nation’s marquee games might have been the closest glimpse yet of what Alabama can be with all its diverse elements working together.
That does include Collin Sexton, of course. The Crimson Tide freshman played 32 minutes, although in his postgame interview, he stopped short of declaring himself 100 percent recovered from the abdominal injury that sidelined him for two full games and half of his return appearance at Ole Miss.
Sore or not, Sexton strongly resembled his old self Saturday, getting the ball to the rim offensively, defending Young for long stretches and doing it all while under control. His three turnovers included one dubious offensive foul and none of the spectacular but risky passes from earlier in the year. The comparisons with Young weren’t settled on Saturday.
They are sort of an “apple vs. orange” debate anyway — different players, different styles. But Sexton followed the mantra giving to him by Avery Johnson, whose advice was “look at the scoreboard every 10 minutes and see if Alabama is winning,” to fruition, if not perfection.
That left enough space for his teammates to shine, and they did. Donta Hall had his usual chances to dunk, and also patrolled the paint defensively with a vigor not seen since Roy Rogers (the shot-blocking center, not the cowboy) was riding the range within a four-foot perimeter of the Coleman Coliseum rims. Hall’s eight blocked shots fueled the crowd. So did freshman John Petty’s three first half 3-pointers, crucial to Alabama’s good start.
Those were important, even more so when combined with the two crucial Braxton Key 3-pointers in the second half, which fell through the net like rain on a parched land, given Key’s shooting struggles since his return from knee surgery.
Then there was Herbert Jones, the “other, other freshman” who didn’t get the same publicity out of Hale County that Sexton and Petty commanded. He scored a career-high 14 points, handled the ball as a point forward and defended like a pit bull protecting a litter of pups. His performance left Johnson trying to balance praise with enough moderation to keep Jones from walking out the door with one of the 57 NBA scouts in attendance.
“I’m the NBA scout on this team,” Johnson chuckled. “And I’m in college.”
Combine it all, and it was as gratifying a win as Alabama has had in a long time. The crowd responded — and Johnson returned the love.
“The crowd that I witnessed today,”he said, “this is not me blowing smoke, I’d say the same thing if we lost… the crowd I witnessed today in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for an Alabama basketball game, it was magical. I’m honored to be the coach and I’m honored to be a part of it.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.
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