Heading into the final TV timeout of the first half against Drake, it looked like Alabama would be able to cruise into halftime with a comfortable lead. After a 15-0 run, No. 10 Alabama held a 33-18 lead. Instead, the Bulldogs closed the half on a 11-0 run to make it a four-point game at halftime.
This set the stage for a tightly-contested second half before Alabama (5-1) was able to pull away over Drake (3-2) in the final minutes with some solid defense and key three-pointers by Keon Ellis and Jahvon Quinerly in the 80-71 win at the ESPN Events Invitational in Orlando.
Alabama head coach Nate Oats called the Quinerly three "maybe the play of the game." Jaden Shackelford was able to draw the defenders in before kicking it out to an open Quinerly who nailed the shot to give Alabama a 72-64 lead with 2:32 to go.
"He's wired to score, that's what makes him so good, but I thought he made the right plays today," Oats said on Shackelford. "He collapsed three guys and sprayed the ball out to JQ in the corner, and we hit a three to kind of open up the game a little bit there."
The Alabama defense only allowed four Drake field goals over the final 9:26 of the game. While the free throw shooting still wasn't great overall (13-22), the Crimson Tide was able to hit some timely free throws down the final stretch of the game when they needed to.
"We did a better job with our switches, didn't let them get open," Oats said. "They'd been hurting us on some back cuts and slashes, and we did a better job staying awake on that."
While Oats was proud of the way his defense played for most of the game, he also acknowledged that free throws are obviously still a big problem that his team needs to work on.
At the 10:04 mark, D.J. Wilkins made a three-pointer for Drake to take a 53-52 lead. It was the Bulldogs first lead since 14-12 in the first half. After a back-and-forth second half, Alabama responded a little while later with a 13-4 run to build up a six-point lead at 67-61, and the Bulldogs could never get it closer than that.
Quinerly led Alabama in scoring with 18 points, but Juwan Gary was huge in his first start of the season. Gary finished with a double-double of 14 points, 10 rebounds including four offensive rebounds. Shackelford also had 14 points.
Including the four offensive boards from Gary, Alabama had 10 total which led to 15 second chance points which proved huge in the game. Gary's efforts were enough to earn him the hard hat award for the game.
Forward Noah Gurley came off the bench for the first time this year and finished with eight points and three rebounds. Oats said he thought it was Gurley's best game of the season.
Freshman guard JD Davison also showed flashes of his capabilities with a couple of strong drives to the basket, five rebounds and three assists. He and Gary connected a couple times in the second half.
Alabama only had seven assists in the Thursday loss to Iona, so Gary said it was a focus from the coaching staff on Friday.
"So today was a big emphasis of just getting the ball moving, making good reads, knocking down open shots, and getting to the right place," Gary said. "Just playing our game."
The Crimson Tide finished with 11 assists against Drake with four each from Shackelford and Quinerly and three from Davison.
After not playing well on Thursday and holding a 15-point first half lead, it was important for Alabama to get the win against Drake and not fall to 0-2 at the invitational.
Now the Crimson Tide will play Miami in the fifth-place game on Sunday with the chance to leave Orlando with a 2-1 record in the tournament and a 6-1 record overall heading into a really tough non-conference stretch against Gonzaga, Memphis and Houston.
"Trying to get out of here 2-1," Oats said. "We're 1-1 right now. Gotta get one more against Miami on Sunday."