Already crowded. The Alabama bench was at its feet. A common occurrence on Sunday afternoons — when a white jersey finds some open space behind the arc and swishes up a 3-pointer, Nick Pringle can’t stand it. The Tide freshman fell to the ground and woke up in a daze like even he couldn’t believe the Alabama crater was there.
The Tide avenged last week’s loss to Texas A&M, beating the two-seed Aggies 82-63. A potential storybook season, at least on the court, added another celebratory chapter in Nashville. Alabama won its 17th overall SEC championship, and eighth through the tournament.
The Tide is looking to capture the SEC’s glass trophy alone this March. At 5 p.m., the Tide will be announced as the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will receive a home crowd similar to Sunday’s at Bridgestone Arena. Alabama is expected to be in the South Regional playing its first two games in Birmingham.
Coach Nate Oates said before the contest that a six-day break before the postseason would give Alabama a chance to reset after struggling through four straight games. Fix random shooting events. Clean up turnovers. And it worked. The Wave’s current form should make it the favorite, if not the team to beat in March Madness.
But to get there, Alabama will have to prove its team shooting and depth in three games in three days. The SEC Finals started with a 3-pointer by Mark Sears. He celebrated breaking out of his shooting slump by spinning and flexing toward the Tide bench. As it did against Missouri, Alabama started hot from range, hitting four of five from deep and hitting seven of its first 15 shots.
A&M took some shots early, but ultimately, the Tide’s length on defense disrupted shots on the perimeter, challenging rebounds and forcing sloppy passes. Noah Gurley nailed a layup attempt off the backboard and Charles Bediago met an A&M senior at the rim for another block. Because of Bediako’s effort (12 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks), Alabama wrestled possession and A&M couldn’t string together good possessions.
The Aggies started 5-for-25 and had a field goal in the final 11 minutes of the first half.
Brandon Miller picked up two fouls in eight minutes, but the trio of Sears, Rylan Griffen and Jahvon Quinerly (22 points total) complemented Miller’s production while sitting on the bench. The triple drive strategy, a staple of Oates’ gameplan, drew the maroon jerseys, allowing the Tide to come up the curve. By the time Miller picked up his third foul of the half, A&M trailed by 11.
Agis came out of the locker room watching the paint go in. A&M’s Julius Marble converted a hook shot on its first possession, but the Tide won the rebounding battle and limited the second-chance points.
A&M flashed a 3-2 zone, a Quinerly turnover and a dunk by Marble to cut the lead into a deficit. But as the A&M fans started to get involved, Miller knocked down a pass for a steal and cashed in on the ensuing 3-pointer. As the lead dwindled to eight minutes later, Miller grabbed two offensive rebounds on one trip to the floor, eventually getting fouled and converting his free throws.
Oates called for Alabama fans to run from Tuscaloosa. At least with the noise levels during the tight runs, his wish was granted. Supporters gave Alabama several standing ovations, including after A&M coach Buzz Williams pushed Alabama back into the lead following another Miller deep punt after a timeout.
The game turned out to be a blowout, a chance for the starters to serenade the cheering crowd and the walk-ons to see the field.
All season long, the Tide stormed through SEC play. Sunday marked Alabama’s 19th win against an SEC opponent. The Tide’s largest second-half deficit this week was four points.
One of the best teams in SEC history could back its case with two pieces of hardware, and for the fifth straight time, Alabama took home the regular-season and conference titles.
This post will be updated.