NEW YORK — Alabama coach Avery Johnson didn’t flinch in the timeout huddle.
Neither did freshman Collin Sexton.
Or freshman Galin Smith.
Or senior Riley Norris.
They were down to five players, with no bench, with 13:39 left due to all five players leaving the bench to react to a scuffle.
They were down to four after Dazon Ingram fouled out with 11:37.
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They were down to three after John Petty injured his right ankle after missing a 3-pointer.
And yet Alabama went from down 13 points to within just three with 1:39 remaining.
Sexton, the superb freshman, scored 19 of his 40 when Alabama was down to three.
The No. 25 Tide ended up losing 89-84 to No. 14 Minnesota in the Barclays Center Classic Saturday night in a game that showed the Gophers could be a Big Ten title team for 27 minutes, and put on display Sexton’s pro-ready skills for a frenzied final 10 minutes.
It was wild.
Collin Sexton had a magnificent night vs. Minnesota in the Big— Alabama Men’s Basketball (@AlabamaMBB) November 26, 2017
He is the first Alabama player to score points since Reggie King had 43 vs. Virginia on Dec. 29, #RollTide#BuckleUp pic.twitter.com/ETcWTSKt6X
“You don’t expect anything like that to happen,’’ Johnson said. The Tide coach picked up a technical in the first half on the same floor where he once coached the Brooklyn Nets. “We didn’t make excuses. We were still in the huddle drawing up plays. There was no quit in our team. There was no surrender.’’
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino had no expiation for his team’s sudden collapse in an overmatched situation, before they survived with the win.
“We played 27 minutes of terrific basketball,’’ Pitino said. “We were as good as we’ve [been] in a long time. We don’t practice a lot of 5-on-3 offense so that was on me. Collin had an out of body experience. He’s good enough to beat a team as one guy. I’m going to watch the first 27 minutes and say we got better. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life, not only the ejections, but then the kid fouls out and then the kid gets hurt and then Collin Sexton loses his mind. I’ve never seen that.’’
Johnson said he told the four remaining players — before it was down to three — in a timeout to play the boxes and elbows, like a shell drill.
"I told them to cover the corners and contest 3s," he said. "We’ve practiced 5-on-3 and 5-on-4 in practice. They knew to pack it in. I knew once we could get the rebound, we had to score as fast as we can. If we felt there was a mismatch with one of their defenders, we wanted to go and screen their guys and get Collin going down hill.’’
Johnson said he felt like his team kept its composure.
That’s true, when the Tide were left with no choice.
But it was the eruption off the bench that put the Tide in the most bizarre situation in quite some time.
Congratulations are in order for Jordan Murphy, who was named the Barclays Center Classic All-Tournament Most Valuable Player! pic.twitter.com/dsEizqUvck— Minnesota MBB (@GopherMBB) November 26, 2017
Norris had hit a 3-pointer to cut the Gophers' once 16-point lead to seven. Immediately, under the basket, words were exchanged that led to technical fouls being assessed to Minnesota’s Dupree McBrayer and Ingram (his fourth at the time). But Alabama bench players Donta Hall, Alex Reese, Daniel Giddens, Avery Johnson Jr. and Herbert Jones bolted off the bench.
This all was under the backdrop of chatter a minute earlier between Nate Mason and Sexton that resulted in double technicals and an ejection of Mason, who had scored 20 points.
NCAA.com received a pool comment from the officiating crew of Rick Crawford, Bret Smith and Brian McConnell:
“By rule, whenever a potential situation occurs on the court, no player may leave the bench area. If they do leave the bench area and don’t participate in the altercation that’s going on then they are ejected from this contest and there’s no further penalty, which is what happened. They all came onto the court. We went to the monitor and reviewed all of that. Based on the views that were given us it showed all of their players on the bench, came off the bench onto the court. The views we were given we didn’t see anyone from the Minnesota bench come onto the floor.’’
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The scene of the Tide with no bench, no one, not a single player sitting down, was something you had to see to believe.
Once Ingram fouled out, the 5-on-4 scenario was real. And then the Petty injury simply made this unprecedented.
Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy said he would have to go back to his elementary days to remember seeing anything like this.
“It was one of the most bizarre things I’ve been a part of in college basketball," Murphy said. "But it was mostly Collin Sexton throwing up 3s. He was pulling up from anywhere with limitless range.’’
Murphy said the tension started in the second half and attributed it to the fact they were two teams playing a passionate game.
Alabama is playing Avery Johnson’s vaunted 1-2 zone. pic.twitter.com/tXJv8jOVV0— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) November 25, 2017
“It was easier when it was 5-on-4,’’ said Pitino, whose father, former Louisville coach Rick Pitino, was in the stands watching with his mother Joanne and other family members and friends. “They were giving us the wide-open mid-range shot. It’s a hard shot to make. I did a very bad job the last 13 minutes. I have no answers how I could have done a better job. I wanted them to drive the ball. We kept our composure. We had to get stops and rebounds. We did that.’’
Pitino said, in jest, that he’s not going to work on any 5-on-3 offense, assuming he will never have to do that again.
“We will learn from this,’’ said Johnson. “We will have a lot of teachable moments from this. We definitely can’t have our bench leave the floor with a scuffle on the court.’’
The game ended with Minnesota avoiding a disastrous meltdown, but preserving the good will of a team that is ready for prime time. Richard Pitino said he would put Mason up against any point guard in the country. He can’t say enough about the progress of Jordan Murphy, who scored 19 and grabbed 14 boards. The Gophers, who have now won at Providence and over Alabama, play Miami in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge Wednesday and still have to go to Arkansas on Dec. 9, as well as its first taste of the Big Ten schedule against Rutgers on Dec. 3.
Alabama knows it has a star in Sexton. But there are questions now if Petty is down for a spell, with Johnson unsure of the extent of his injury. Braxton Key still hasn’t played this season due to a knee injury.
The night ended a rough day for Alabama with the No. 1 team in college football losing to Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Johnson said he had no idea who won the game when asked after by a reporter. His concern was all about how he can use this potentially once-in-a coaching career game as some sort of springboard into creating a necessary narrative going forward. Alabama survived a game at home against UT-Arlington and still has a brutal schedule to come against UCF, Rhode Island, at Arizona, Mercer and Texas before opening the SEC against potential favorite Texas A&M.
“We’re real spotty right now and that’s what happens when you play quite a few freshmen,’’ said Johnson. “We won’t win many games if we don’t win the rebound game. Murphy dominated us on both ends of the floor.
“We’re still trying to get some battle scares,’’ Johnson said. “We got one today. We have a long ways to go. Our ceiling is high. But we’re not a finished product and we’re not healthy yet. I’m looking forward to practice Monday and get healthy and be the type of team we can be when we’re whole.’’
That’s 5-on-5. Not 5-on-4 or 5-on-3.
Alabama nearly pulled off the impossible Saturday night by winning with only three.
That alone should be some solace for the Tide on what ended up being as freakish a second half in the sport as you’ll see this season or any going forward.