Disappointing early exit, but Tide doing it the Pettway
by Joe Medley
Mar 18, 2012 | 2487 views |  0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Alabama fans should take some comfort after the Crimson Tide’s first-round exit in from the NCAA Tournament.

First, misery loves high-profile company. Everyone’s talking about Duke’s first-round ouster, not Alabama’s.

And don’t worry about smack from Michigan fans as they mingle before that football game in Dallas.

Don’t worry about smack from Missouri fans crashing the SEC party this coming fall.

Alabama didn’t lose to a teen-seeded bracket buster. The Tide actually lost to a higher-seeded team, which means Alabama finished in the not-so-mad half of Friday’s madness.

So long as everyone is talking about Lehigh, Norfolk State and Ohio, no one is talking about Alabama.

But there’s more reason for Alabama fans that actually care about the basketball program to take heart. It comes from an ex-Tider who knows something about heart.

It comes from a guy who became the face of the program’s highest point in recent memory.

It comes from a guy still with the program as director of operations — a guy who saw where things stood, sees where things stand and saw just about everything in between.

Yes, Antoine Pettway likes what he sees at Alabama after year three under current head coach Anthony Grant. It looks familiar and in a good way.

“This was a step in the right direction,” Pettway said after Alabama’s first NCAA Tournament game in six years, a 58-57 loss to Creighton.

“Guys played their hearts out and played to the last minute of the game.”

If anyone knows heart, it’s Pettway.

He was the walk-on player who earned a scholarship then became the heart and soul of the Alabama team that made the program’s deepest NCAA run, to the Elite Eight in 2004.

Who can forget the Tide point guard in the red sneakers sinking the runner that rescued Alabama in the first round against Southern Illinois, igniting that Elite Eight run?

Who can forget Pettway’s shot to beat Florida and clinch the SEC regular-season title in 2002?

Yeah, that Antoine Pettway, the heart-over-talent kid who carried his playing career as far as the NBA Developmental League and World Basketball Association. He was the WBA’s rookie of the year in 2004.

He returned to Alabama as a graduate assistant, did two years as an assistant at Jacksonville State, returned to Alabama as an assistant under Mark Gottfried and was retained by Grant.

He’s the heart that beats on for Alabama basketball and, seemingly, at times, has been the one administering defibrillation.

Heart became a question mark for the Tide late in Gottfried’s ill-fated tenure, and heart became a question again this season, with as many as four starters being suspended at once. Tony Mitchell missed the Tide’s final 11 games.

In many ways, this season that was supposed to be about making the NCAA Tournament became a battle for the program’s heart. Grant showed his will to win the battle by risking disappointing results.

The battle ended with point guard Trevor Releford trying to pull a Pettway, taking Alabama’s last-gasp shot in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Just five days prior, the battle felt most worth it for all involved. That was Selection Sunday, a week ago today, when Alabama drew the No. 9 seed in the final bracket announced.

The Tide watched the selection show privately, and seeing Alabama’s name appear on the TV ignited a celebration in the room. A picture of that celebration appeared in state newspapers.

Joy on the faces of Alabama players and coaches looked very Pettway-like.

“It was awesome, man,” Pettway said Friday, standing amid a sullen locker room. “Just being in there and seeing these guys’ faces and have them experience making it to the tournament — we hadn’t been since 2006 — so it was just great to see these guys and the excitement on their faces when their name was called.”

So, what does the link between Alabama’s greatest NCAA run and this season’s battle for the program’s heart see developing around him, under Grant?

Pettway sees something he likes, something that should cause Alabama fans to take heart.

He didn’t see the run some thought Alabama might have when the Tide jumped to No. 12 in national polls early this season, but he saw a team battle through internal drama. He saw a team do enough to break through, back into the NCAA Tournament.

He saw a team realize the reason for this season after the NCAA snubbed the Tide a year ago.

“These guys played with heart. They played hard,” he said. “They give you their all, so we’re definitely proud of them.

“They fought hard today, and they’ll come back even stronger.”

Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or jmedley@annistonstar.com. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.

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