INDIANAPOLIS — Maybe it’s the low-hanging rafters in here or the exposed air ducts. Maybe it’s the unusual lighting or the sunken floor. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the near 100-year-old aura that lives here at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Or maybe, in explaining Alabama’s disastrous free-throw shooting on Sunday night against UCLA, it was March. And not just any ole March, but March 2021, the revival of the NCAA tournament and the return of more madness than we’ve ever seen, quite literally.
The No. 11-seeded Bruins’ 88–78 overtime thriller over the No. 2-seeded Crimson Tide represented the 13th upset of this tournament, tying the NCAA record for upsets, which the organization defines as a win by a team seeded five spots higher than its opponent. Not only that, but no head coach remaining in the Big Dance has won a national title, and the most recent team left here to win a championship did so 26 years ago (it was UCLA, in fact).
It’s been weird here. It’s been bizarre. Wacky. Wild. Take for instance that the second No. 15 seed ever (Oral Roberts) advanced to the Sweet 16. And the Pac-12—Pac-12!—is guaranteed to have three teams in the Elite Eight. In fact, for the first time ever, the Elite Eight will feature seven teams from west of the Mississippi River.
And then came Sunday night at one of the country’s most historic hoops venues, when the SEC regular season and tournament champion Tide (26-7) was sent packing by a team that barely squeaked into the NCAA tournament. Bama and the Bruins gave all of us the Big Dance’s best act yet: an epic overtime slugfest that included eight lead changes, 11 ties, a game-tying, buzzer-beating three-pointer (from Bama in regulation), an 11 seed downing a 2 seed and, quite possibly, the NCAA tournament swan song of this hump-backed brick beauty of a basketball cathedral (it very well could be Hinkle’s last time hosting an NCAA tournament game).
And, oh yes, don’t forget about some of the worst, most horrific free-throw shooting you’ll see. The Tide finished 11 of 25 from the free-throw line, a woeful 44% mark, quite stunning for a team that entered the game having made 72% this season. Afterward, second-year Alabama coach Nate Oats was as shocked as anyone else.
“We’ve had guys that made them at a pretty high level all year,” Oats said. “Didn’t make them tonight for some reason.”
The Tide missed at historic levels. It was their worst free throw night of the season when attempting at least eight free throws. It was their third worst free throw night overall. It was the worst free-throw game by a team to attempt at least 25 free throws in an NCAA tournament game since Kansas in the 2003 national championship game.
A deeper dive into the free-throw shooting reveals more horror. Seven players attempted at least one free throw. Two players made more than half of those shots. Two players also made none of those shots. The Tide missed six of their last seven from the free-throw line, and in one of the most striking statistics, it missed the front end of five one-and-ones, leaving as many as 10 points in the ether.
Both teams shot 25 free throws. UCLA made 20. Alabama made 11.
“It's disappointing,” Oats says, “because if we make 'em, we win the game.”
Despite Bama’s free-throw debacle, this game was won and lost elsewhere, too. Jamie Jaquez, the Bruins’ sophomore with the fuzzy facial hair and forehead band, took over during the final stretch. He sank a free-throw-line jumper with Alabama’s John Petty in his face and then buried a three-pointer to give UCLA a 77–70 lead with 1:35 left. On the other end, he corralled a Bama miss, and the Bruins, the NCAA’s leader in national titles (11), marched into the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008.
UCLA players poured onto the court and those in Bruin blue at Hinkle Fieldhouse screamed toward its metal ceiling. Hep Cronin, UCLA coach Mick Cronin’s 80-year-old father and a legendary high school basketball coach, even did a jig in the stands, his face plastered on the Jumbotron as the team celebrated below with (more contemporary) dance moves of their own.
“I’ve been on the other side of this,” said Cronin, who advanced to his first Elite Eight. “It's like driving off a cliff. It’s excruciating.”
This one really did have it all, even from the very start. Herb Jones, the SEC player of the year, was called for offensive fouls on Alabama’s first two possessions—some 42 seconds into the game (Jones finished with eight points). Oats benched him for the next 10 minutes.
Each team took its shot against the other. Bama stormed back from an early deficit with a furious 13–0 run, all with Jones on the bench. The Bruins closed the half with a 15–2 jaunt of their own to take an 11-point halftime lead.
The Tide mounted another comeback, scoring the first 11 points of the second half. The game then devolved into a see-saw affair. UCLA’s then-leading scorer Johnny Juzang fouled out with 2:26 left in a tied game. With 6.8 seconds in regulation, Jones missed a pair of free throws that could have won the Tide the game. Instead, Alabama needed a 26-foot three-point heave from Alex Reese, which stunned the crowd here and sent the game, at 65-all, to overtime.
UCLA guard David Singleton cranked up the OT with a three-pointer and Tyler Campbell stole a pass and banked a layup for a quick five-point lead.
“We had all the momentum going to overtime,” Oats said. “They could have folded. They didn’t—they punched us in the mouth.”
On the very next possession, the epitome of Alabama’s final 2020–21 basketball game was on display. Two clanks, from Reese, at the free throw line.
And so there went the Tide, washed away by an 11 seed on a historically terrible free-throw night—fitting of this year’s NCAA tournament. Expect the bizarre.
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