Alabama has no choice but to play the cards it's been dealt, and that's exactly what it's doing.
Playing in the National Invitation Tournament wasn't ideal for the Crimson Tide (22-12), but this team showed no signs of ineptitude or boredom in their 62-43 win over Northeastern Tuesday night at Coleman Coliseum. Instead, they played with energy and overcame a bit of adversity to move on to the second round of a post-season tournament.
The No. 1 seeded Tide will play the winner of tonight's game between Stanford-Stephen F. Austin in Tuscaloosa at a date yet to be determined. The dates of NIT second round games will be announced Wednesday.
Alabama started fast, leaping out to a 24-7 lead in the first half. Things looked easy despite the quick turnaround (Alabama played Florida in Nashville on Saturday in the SEC Tournament semifinal game).
But No. 8 seed Northeastern (20-13) crept back in and got within 28-23 at halftime. Two minutes into the second half, the Huskies had gone on a 20-4 run and Bama only led by one, 28-27.
But Alabama reignited its fire and went on a 22-0 run, led by Levi Randolph, who scored nine of his total 13 points in that 8-minute span, including back-to-back dunks and a trey that got a sparse, yet otherwise enthusiastic crowd, on their feet.
"Coming out of the half, we challenged our guys to step it back up and understand what allowed us to get a lead in the first place," said Alabama coach Anthony Grant. "I thought those two plays [Randolph] made really ignited our team and our team fed off of that energy that he created with back-to-back plays like that.
"When plays like that happen, it kind of fires your team up and deflates your opponent for a little bit. Those were kind of momentum shifting plays."
Grant told his team before the game that the scariest thing about Northeastern is that in its last three games, it was down by double digits and cut up the deficit through runs, which is exactly what the Huskies did against Alabama.
"In the first half when we got up (by 17), we told our guys this is where they're most comfortable," Grant said. "We're going to have to withstand a run here and they made that run, so the challenge for us in the second half was for us to regroup and refocus and get over whatever happened and come out with intensity and I think that in the second half, our guys responded."
This game was essentially a microcosm of Alabama's entire season—ups followed by downs, followed by more ups and downs. The Tide jumped out to a 17-point lead, squandered it away, allowing the Huskies to get within a point, then caught fire and ended up winning the game by 19.
"As a team, we gotta get beyond that," Grant said. "That's the maturity that I'm looking for. As a coach, my expectation is for our guys to get the maturity and stop allowing that to happen."
In a news conference Monday, Grant and Releford were asked if playing in the NIT was a "letdown." For the second time in three years, Alabama was snubbed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Releford just shook his head at the question.
"It's a great tournament," he said. "We know it's not the big dance, but it gives our team the opportunity to get more experience and play some good competition."
Alabama didn't play like it was upset about not making the NCAA Tournament. It played like it was trying to make it to Madison Square Garden and win a championship.
"Our goal before this game was to make a run in this tournament and win it," Releford said. "We on to the next one."
Randolph led the team with 13 points, Trevor Lacey added 11 and Releford had nine. Northeastern was without its leading scorer Joel Smith (16.1 points per game), who injured his knee in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament last week.
Alabama outscored Northeastern in the paint (36-14), in points off the bench (19-6) and points off turnovers (22-12). The Tide also outrebounded the Huskies, 37-27.
For more Alabama coverage, follow Laken Litman on Twitter!