On Thursday, sophomore forward Juwan Gary returned to the hardwood after missing a pair of games due to an ankle injury. In his return against Iona, Gary recorded just four points but managed to wrangle in seven rebounds.
On Friday in the Crimson Tide's second game of the ESPN Events Invitational, Gary's performance was much more impressive.
Playing against Drake and looking to avoid starting the tournament 0-2, Alabama head coach Nate Oats opted to start Gary in just his second game back from energy, sending graduate forward Noah Gurley to play off the bench.
“Kind of put [Gary] in the lineup to switch the rotation up a little bit,” Oats said. “Kinda wanted Noah to play backup five. I though Noah had his best game since he’s been here, too.”
With the Crimson Tide winning the game 80-71, the lineup switch paid off for both Gary and Gurley. Gary finished the game with 14 points and 10 rebounds for his second double-double of the season, while Gurley had his best outing of the season with eight points and three rebounds.
“I felt confident,” Gary said. “I had my teammates out there just to help me get back into the flow of the system. Coach trusted me to go out there and start and just give out that energy and that blue collar like I am so just to go out there and help my team get the W, it felt good for me.”
In Gurley's game against Iona, the veteran forward tallied seven points and four rebounds. However, when playing off the bench against Drake, Gurley played some of his best basketball of the season.
“When we came out, we switched the starting lineup up,” Oats said. “Went to see how Noah reacts, he’s great. He played his best game ever, so I think you can really tell who’s locked in to being who’s about us — about the team — and who’s not. I thought the whole team really locked in to being about us today.”
After the game was over, Oats revealed that Gary had earned himself the blue collar hard-hat award, the team award given to the player who totals the most blue-collar points on the team. Just two games removed from his injury, Gary showed the best effort of the afternoon on the court.
With the win, Alabama is now 5-1 to start the season and will now take a day off before facing Miami on Sunday in both teams' final game of the tournament (5:30 p.m. CT, Network TBD).
With the lineup change having worked out so well for both Gary and Gurley, it wouldn't be surprising if Alabama fans see Oats use the same strategy on Sunday afternoon.
“I saw a lot of confidence,” Gary said of his team's bench. “Noah came off the bench giving us great energy, rebounding the ball. Knocking down shots wasn’t a big thing for us. Our bench is a big-time thing for us when you’re playing big-time teams and the energy he gave us was a big-time role for him.”