Tide Loses, But Fights Until End

Perhaps the only bad thing about the NCAA Basketball Tournament is that 64 of the 65 teams which start the tournament end up losers. Connecticut is expected by many to be the one team that finishes the season with a victory, and the national championship. The Huskies made believers out of Alabama Saturday as Connecticut eliminated surprising Bama, 87-71.

In some respects, Alabama's play against the Huskies was embarrassing. But Alabama has nothing to be embarrassed about. No one expected Alabama to be in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, playing in the regional finals against the team that had been picked to finish number one in the nation this year.

Alabama, replacing four starters from last season, had been predicted to finish fifth–in the six-team Southeastern Conference Western Division. After scraping its way into the NCAA Tournament as a number eight seed, Bama defeated the team that came into the tournament ranked number one, Stanford, and the team that won last year's national championship, Syracuse. The Tide's run was ended by a number two seed, Connecticut.

Connecticut has extraordinary talent and the Huskies were on top of their game. Connecticut got open shots and hit them. They got rebounds for second and third chance points. Even with their star, Emeka Okafor, the shot-blocking intimidated Alabama inside, where the Crimson Tide missed even more than usual on close-in shots.

Okafor suffered an apparent "stinger" when he was fouled midway through the first half and scored only two points. However, he managed nine rebounds and a half dozen blocked shots before going out. His absence was compensated for by outside shooters Ben Gordon, who was most valuable player in the tournament, had 36 points, and Rashad Anderson had 28 points.

Connecticut now advances to the Final Four in San Antonio next week.

Meanwhile, Alabama, which had to play at its very best, was not very good. At least, not good in the sense that no team which shoots poorly looks good. Alabama did not shoot well, but that could have been expected. Connecticut had been the best defensive team in the nation all season and in the NCAA Tournament.

Although Bama played the nation's toughest schedule, it was not until the Crimson Tide's final game of the year that Alabama met its toughest opponent. Alabama finished the season at 20-13.

It was Alabama's 17th appearance in the NCAA Tournament and the first time an Alabama team has gone so deep into the tournament, to the final eight teams playing.

Alabama's only leads in the game were at 2-0 and 4-2.

Alabama had a chance to pull within five points of the Huskies with under five minutes to play in the first half. The Tide trailed by 33-25. It would have taken a three-point goal to cut into that eight-point Connecticut lead. Instead, Kennedy Winston shot a wild, off-balance, guarded shot that never came close. Seconds later the lead was at 13 and the Huskies were on their way to a 24-point intermission lead, 53-29. That four-minute plus span had Bama outscored 20-4. The Huskies hit nine of 11 three-point shots in the first half while Alabama was good only only two of 12 shots from behind the three-point line. The 53 points by Connecticut was the most allowed by Bama in any half this year. Alabama Head Coach Mark Gottfried said, "U-Conn in the first half was absolutely terrific. That was the story of this game. Some of it may have been breakdowns on our part, but that was the best half of basketball anyone has played against us. Obviously we're disappointed, but I am proud of my team. But today, every time we tried to make a run, U-Conn had an answer."

Bama had to know it had to make a substantial move in the second half. But halfway through the second stanza Bama had been able to cut only five points off that lead. It was too much ground to make up. Connecticut then tried to put the game in something of a deep freeze, taking almost all of the 35 seconds. Sometimes the Huskies missed, but not often enough. Sometimes Alabama fouled, which appeared to be the best strategy against one of the worst free throw shooting teams in college basketball.

Nevertheless, the Crimson Tide did something that has marked this team all year. Alabama did not give up. The Tide fought and got within 14 points, 76-62, with over four and a half minutes to play. But Bama could never get closer than that 14-point margin.

Alabama was led in scoring by sophomore Chuck Davis, who had 24 points and also led Bama with nine rebounds. Kennedy Winston had 21 points, Emmetth Thomas 11 (all in the second half), and Earnest Shelton 10 points.

Davis and Winston joined Connecticut's Gordon, Anderson, and Okafor on the Phoenix Region All-Tournament team.

Although Alabama did not shoot well, the Tide did better than most who play against Connecticut. Bama was good on 25 of 60 field goals tries for 42.3 per cent. The Huskies hit 29 of 60 for 48.3 per cent. Alabama was good on only six of 18 three-point shots, 33.3 per cent, while Connecticut hit 10-17 for 58.3 per cent. (Connecticut made only one-of-eight treys in the second half.) Alabama had hoped to get to the free throw line against the aggressive Huskies, but Bama was able to take only 18 free throws, making 15 for 83.3 per cent. U-Conn hit 19 of 29 fouls shots, 65.5 per cent.

Alabama was out-rebounded throughout the tournament and there was particular fear about the potential deficit on the boards against the powerful Huskies. But with Okafor on the bench much of the afternoon, Alabama had 31 rebounds, 10 fewer than the 41 by Connecticut.

Bama's drubbing came despite good ball-handling by the Tide, only five turnovers.

The game was the final one as a Crimson Tide player for four seniors–starter Antoine Pettway, and back-up players Reggie Rambo, Demetrius Smith, and Emmett Thomas.


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