As Alabama Basketball Celebrated Its Biggest Legend, Another Emerged
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There was simply no way that Alabama was going to lose this one.
At least that’s the way it looked for most of the second half, especially when the Crimson Tide men's basketball team stretched its lead to 18 points and seemed to be well on its way to scoring a potentially season-changing win over Southeastern Conference co-leader LSU.
Only the Tigers came back, and got closer, and closer. They eventually got to within a point, which was when the Crimson Tide seemed to remember what exactly was on the line Saturday afternoon: Everything.
Alabama considered this a must win, especially for it to make the NCAA Tournament.
“Most definitely,” freshman guard Jaden Shackelford said.
LSU was the last top-tier team Alabama will get at Coleman Coliseum this season. They call it a Quadrant One opponent in tournament talk nowadays, yet the principle hasn't changed: To make the NCAA field you have to beat quality teams.
The Crimson Tide was all-in in just about every way imaginable.
Wendell Hudson’s No. 20 was unveiled from the rafters at Coleman Coliseum during a halftime ceremony, the first jersey retired in Alabama history.
The school gave out 2,500 hard hats to continue promoting the teams’ blue-collar work ethic. The student section, which looked and sounded like giant mutant Scrubbing Bubbles, was on its feet from start to finish.
Former players Donta Hall and fan-favorite Lawson Schaffer were introduced. Nick and Terry Saban were in the front row (and stuck around for the whole game).
Alabama didn’t hold back a thing, including Mr. Hard Hat himself, Herb Jones. Two weeks after having surgery to repair a fractured wrist, he started and played 29 minutes.
It all paid off in a big way.
Final score: Alabama 88, LSU 82.
Circle this game on the schedule for when people talk about turning points and landmark games in the program under Nate Oats. The win against No. 4 Auburn last month was obviously big as well, but didn’t include Jones grabbing 17 rebounds and making two late free throws with one hand.
Yes, one hand. The cast was on the other. Jones had to finger-lift the ball up on his good hand and lunge it forward.
Even LSU coach Will Wade called him an “ultimate warrior” in disbelief.
There were a lot of other players who played key roles in Alabama pulling the game out, and they went far beyond sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. scoring a game-high 27 points.
Shackelford, who finished with 26 points, was one of them. He hit a big-time 3 after LSU had pulled to within 79-78. At that moment, he looked anything like a freshman.
Moments later, junior forward Alex Reese hit another 3, draining the shot despite being in a recent shooting slump. The extra work in the gym paid off.
Galin Smith was another clutch performer. In 17 minutes he grabbed six rebounds, including four on the offensive end as Alabama nullified LSU's 27-19 halftime edge off the glass.
The junior forward was shooting just 37 percent from the free-throw line, but made his first six before missing his final attempt. Overall, the Crimson Tide was 19 of 26 from the charity stripe.
Two of those will be especially talked about for a long time.
All this week Alabama (14-11, 6-6 SEC) talked about the schedule and how it was running out of opportunities. It nearly pulled out the win at Auburn on Wednesday after opening the game in a 16-0 hole, but we all know the saying about what being close will get you in sports.
So that forced Alabama into this corner. A loss, and the season would have been essentially over for this team.
But the win probably only put the Crimson Tide squarely back on the tournament bubble with six league games remaining and the SEC Tournament.
“We have to draw a line in the sand here," Oats said. "Are we going to keep losing close games or are we going to do what it takes to win them?”
Regardless, it was a huge win, and a special day.
Hudson’s honor alone ensured that, but fans left Coleman Coliseum raving about someone else and the heart that this team has shown.
Alabama calls itself the place where legends are made.
Another arrived on Saturday.