NEW YORK — Nobody at Barclays Center really knew exactly what was happening, other than it was weird, and it passed for college hoops. Alabama and Minnesota showed up in Brooklyn in what was billed as a game between two ranked teams, but wound up as a basketballing odyssey marked by catastrophe that will be remembered as “the time Alabama played three-on-five for 10 minutes and almost won the game anyway.”
“I have never, ever, ever seen anything like that in my life,” Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino would go on to say after his team's 89–84 win. And by now, you’re probably wondering how we ended up in this situation. It began with Minnesota’s Nate Mason and Alabama’s Collin Sexton, the latter a notorious talker of smack and the former Minnesota’s leading scorer. They exchanged words with 14:06 left in the second half and the Gophers leading by 13 in a game that had grown physical but had not yet boiled over. That encounter led to a double technical, which was followed by Mason’s ejection, which was followed by a tech on Pitino and a delay several minutes long as onlookers and officials alike tried to sort things out.
Nothing was actually sorted out. The next play brought with it a scuffle that involved Alabama’s Dazon Ingram and Minnesota’s Dupree McBrayer, before Alabama’s John Petty sprinted in to a fray in front of the Crimson Tide’s bench that would eventually involve…the entirety of said bench. Which meant the ejection of the entire bench, with 13 minutes and 39 seconds left on the clock. Surprise! And so five Alabama players remained: starting guards Sexton, Petty and Ingram and reserve forwards Galin Smith and Riley Norris.
And so it was at that point that a person sitting to my left in the stands made the point that Ingram was playing with…four fouls. And while Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy dominated a game the Gophers led rail to rail with 19 points and 14 rebounds, perhaps it was more fitting that the big winner on Saturday night was Murphy’s Law. Two minutes of game time later, Ingram fouled out, leaving Alabama with four players. One minute after that, Petty came down on a Minnesota player and rolled his right ankle. And then there were three, and Minnesota still led by 13.
At that point, it was less a game of basketball than an experience that bonded neighbors in the stands and had once been overshadowed by a circulating rumor that Alabama’s top-ranked football team was about to lose to Auburn. It was a safe bet that it was nothing anyone had seen before. Pitino admitted he had no idea how to coach his team through that (“We don’t practice a lot of five-on-three offense, so that one’s on me.”) It was the Tide’s triangular zone packing the paint and the Gophers hoisting ill-advised mid-range shots early in the clock. It was Alabama somehow cutting the lead to single digits. "It was mostly just Collin Sexton throwing up threes to be honest with you,” Jordan Murphy later surmised.
Sexton, Alabama’s star freshman, a potential NBA lottery pick and the primary reason NBA scouts lined the stands, finished with 40 points, 23 of them coming after the mass ejection of his team and 19 of those while flanked by just two teammates. Pitino described those minutes as an “out of body experience.” He hoisted difficult shots, searched for the basket and brought the game within just three points with 1:39 left. From the time they went down a man (and then two) to the end of the game, ’Bama outscored Minnesota 32 to 26 in a game the Gophers had looked set to win decisively through tough defense and interior domination. “We played 27 minutes of terrific basketball,” Pitino was quick to remind reporters. “And then obviously, insanity ensued.”
In Pitino’s defense, what do you even do when you’re defending a lead up two players? There’s no book on it. The apex of the commotion came watching the Gophers decide on the fly whether to shoot or hold the ball and who should or shouldn’t be doing those things as they clung to a lead everyone was fairly sure would hold. In theory, Minnesota could have gone four on five and assigned a big to protect its own basket and prevent fast breaks. It could have held the ball for the entirety of the shot clock and been all but guaranteed an open three. The Gophers took jumpers and skimped on patience instead. None of it mattered, but then again, all of it did.
For what it was worth, the officials declined comment through a pool reporter on what it was actually like to officiate five-on-three basketball. Alabama head coach Avery Johnson was similarly confounded postgame. He did appreciate his team’s effort in what amounted to a permanent penalty kill situation. It will overshadow the fact that the Tide were largely dominated. “The lesson we can learn is when we have five guys on the floor, we could use that same kind of energy,” he said.
Watching the two coaches straight-face their way through their press conferences was certainly not the ending this game deserved, but was probably the one it needed. Any on-court tension had been replaced by awe, confusion and a newfound sense of community among its participants. “Honestly that was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever been a part of,” Murphy said. He spoke for the masses.