The foul line, the overtime and the bitter end end of something fine: Alabama basketball season is over | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

INDIANAPOLIS — The team that travels a thousand miles during a season is bound to be disappointed when it comes up 15 feet short of its goal. 

Alabama basketball travelled that far, from December uncertainty in the middle of an uncertain year to an unexpected run through the Southeastern Conference to a run into late March.

Understandably, the short-term pain of an 88-78 overtime loss to UCLA will be focused on those 15 feet from the foul line to the net. The historical perspective of the long journey will come later.

No game comes down entirely to free throws. There are other plays over the course of 40 minutes. Even as Alabama coach Nate Oats himself pointed out that “if we had made them, we’d have won,” there’s always another possession that might have gone differently, that might have pushed Alabama to the win, that might have made Alex Reese the hero he deserved to be in his senior season.

Were the missed free throws in the clutch more to blame the final 10 minutes of the first half, which UCLA closed on a 29-10 run? Did they cut deeper than two unforced Alabama turnovers that led to breakaway UCLA baskets after the Crimson Tide had rallied to tie the game at 40-40? Yes, in one way, no in another. 

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“Not one of our better performances,” Oats said, talking about the whole 40 minutes. “I guess that at some point this week, I’ll go back and watch the game. I’m not going to watch it tonight, I’ll guarantee you that.

”There were things we could have done better, so I will go back and watch it and figure out what those were.”

No one is saying that any team, player or coach is above criticism. But two things about a player like Herbert Jones: First, no one will feel worse about his three late free throw misses in regulation; Second, they are a single chapter in a long career legacy in which Jones exemplified what a school and a program should want a college athlete to be.

So there is that pain, and also the pain of seeing a special season end, on the floor but away from it as well.

“This is by far the closest team I’ve been on,” John Petty Jr. said. “Off the floor, we were always together, always bonding. It was always one man down and the next man up. After all my experiences, good and bad, that’s what I will remember.”

Oats is going nowhere. This team has no more work left to do, and it did its work well. The coach has to build on his lasting impression of the team.

Mar 28, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide guard Jaden Shackelford (5) drives to the basket against UCLA Bruins forward Cody Riley (2) and guard Tyger Campbell (10) during the first half in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Doug McSchooler-USA TODAY Sports

 “I told our guys I’m going to talk about this team for 30 more years if I’m in coaching,” he said. “They changed the culture of Alabama basketball.”

The two most important games in Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama, I’ve always felt, were a win and a loss: the 2008 SEC Championship Game defeat against Florida and the 2009 SEC Championship Game win. The first of those was close, a play here or there for Alabama, perhaps, but still a loss. But it was a loss at the end of a season in which you could feel the shifting of the wind. The next year, the storm arrived at full force.

Basketball is a different sport, its tournament harder to navigate. But there can still be a shifting of the wind. Oats thinks that he knows the answer to the biggest question ahead: Has the culture changed? Will other Alabama teams be back in this spot before long, make the next step, knock down those free throws? That’s his job, and he is off to a good start. He will watch that UCLA film and learn from it. Maybe not for a couple of days, not with the pain of the ending. But soon enough, the healing comes and perhaps the next high tide will rise to another level,

Reach Cecil Hurt at or via Twitter @cecilhurt