Takeaways from Alabama Basketball’s Sweet 16 Win Over North Carolina

LOS ANGELES — Alabama basketball made history on Thursday night, becoming the second team in school history to advance to the Elite Eight with an 89-87 win over 1-seed North Carolina.

Here are some of my thoughts and observations from a phenomenal basketball game:

1. Alabama overcame injuries.

Latrell Wrightsell was out once again for Alabama due to a head injury he suffered against Grand Canyon, and usually this season, no Wrightsell has been a major issue. The Crimson Tide went 2-3 in a stretch in late February/early March where Wrightsell missed four games and had a minutes restriction in a fifth, while the team is undefeated when Wrightsell scores at least 10 points.

But without Wrightsell, seemingly everybody stepped up.

Of course there was Grant Nelson, who had a monster 24-point, 12-rebound game. He looked like the version of himself that Alabama fans expected in the preseason, and I wrote more about his performance here. But he wasn’t the only one.

Mark Sears had his usual roughly-20 points, scoring 14 in the first half and setting the single-season scoring record for an Alabama basketball player in the process.

Rylan Griffen added 19 points, including five made 3-pointers, and constantly made plays to quiet the North Carolina crowd when it started to feel like a road game. Aaron Estrada scored 19 of his own. Even Sam Walters hit a huge three in the second half, and a hobbled Nick Pringle dealing with a heel bruise suffered mid-game played through the pain and grabbed nine rebounds facing one of the best bigs in the country.

Playing without Wrightsell was always a tall task, but this Alabama team was up for it. And because guys stepped up, this team lives to fight another day.

2. The defense performed admirably.

Alabama was going to need a good defensive game in order to beat North Carolina, and while the box score might not agree, I’d argue that it got one.

It wasn’t the rock fight that the Grand Canyon game was, but Alabama still looked pretty solid on the defensive end, even in the first half. The Crimson Tide forced some tough shots, but North Carolina was unconscious from deep, shooting over 60 percent from three in the first half.

That resulted in a 54-point half from the Tar Heels, and Alabama needed to make some adjustments.

“Just getting a hand up, I felt like we weren’t contesting enough shots in the first half. They were getting too many open looks,” Alabama forward Jarin Stevenson said. “Then having each other’s backs, like being there for a help. I thought we did better in the second half.”

The results showed in the second half box score. North Carolina scored 21 less points in the second half than the first, and was held to horrifically inefficient shooting: 10-for-40 from the floor and 2-for-16 from beyond the arc. The Tar Heels’ best players, point guard RJ Davis and center Armando Bacot, combined for just 6-for-21 from the field in the second half.

That kind of defense, especially against the best players on the opposing team, is what wins you ball games. Alabama keyed in on the most important weapons, and UNC’s supporting cast couldn’t make the necessary plays.

For three games now this team has played fairly solid, to even good defense, something the team has been missing all year. And now, it has the team three wins into the NCAA Tournament.

3. Oats cements his Alabama legacy.

Nate Oats had already accomplished a lot at Alabama.

Through five seasons, he became the fastest coach in school history to 100 wins, he’s won two SEC regular season titles, two SEC Tournaments, made four straight NCAA Tournaments, and made the Sweet 16 three out of four years.

Now, he can add the program’s second-ever Elite Eight to his list of accolades.

It comes 20 years after the program’s first run to the Elite Eight, which came in 2004 as an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament. That came during head coach Mark Gottfried’s run of success in the early 2000’s.

But what Oats has done through his short time at Alabama was once thought to be impossible. The level of consistency he’s gotten his teams to perform with in the regular season was already impressive, but now he’s getting the postseason success that everyone craves to match it.

Even with such few years under his belt in Tuscaloosa, there’s an argument to made that he’s the best coach in the school’s underrated history on the hardwood. But if he can win one more game on Saturday night, and send Alabama to the school’s first Final Four appearance in school history, there may not be any doubting it.

Oats is one of the best coaches in the country, and Alabama is lucky to have him leading the charge of re-igniting this once-dormant program. But tonight, doing something only one other coach in school history had ever done, he cements himself as an Alabama basketball legend that will never be erased.

First appeared on www.si.com

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