Down a point, 2.4 seconds to play in the NCAA tournament, Trevor Releford’s legacy and Alabama’s season hung in the balance. All the elements were there.
Yet, 15 minutes later, a shirtless Releford sat in his locker with a blank stare and a personal pizza on his lap. A joke from a teammate made him smile, but that moment of glory faded into hazy disbelief.
Controversy also swirled in the Greensboro Coliseum back hallways.
Creighton ended Alabama’s season with a 58-57 loss in the NCAA tournament’s second round when Releford’s attempt landed nowhere near the rim. But replays appeared to show Creighton’s Josh Jones made contact with the Alabama sophomore’s hand after the release.
“I feel like he did, but I can’t change it now,” said. “I was shooting my jumper, and you could tell how the shot landed, I mean, he didn’t block it.”
Releford, who scored a team-high 14, sat in shock on the floor as Creighton players celebrated. The last sequence capped a curious closing few seconds that took several minutes to complete.
The clock read 2.4 seconds before Releford’s shot because of a timeout called by Alabama coach Anthony Grant. The Tide inbounded with 4.4 seconds left beside its own bench. Two quick passes later, Grant called for the timeout.
“They switched to a zone (defense) and we had a man play on,” Grant said. “So I tried to get a quick timeout to give our guys something to go with.”
And that was just one of the surprising moments culminating with the missed shot at the buzzer. Alabama led by as many as 11 early in the second half, then trailed by seven with 2:30 left. Fighting back to create the opportunity included a few Creighton misfires.
The steady-shooting Bluejays went 1-for-4 from the free-throw line in the final 31.2 seconds. A Nick Jacobs tip in with 60 seconds left and a Steele layup with 18.4 showing cut it to one. Jones, who was guarding Releford on the final shot, missed two foul shots with 8.7 left to set the table for the wild finish.
Alabama (21-12) controlled the pace for much of the afternoon while limiting Creighton’s All-American Doug McDermott. The aggressive defense, a Grant hallmark, held the Bluejays 22 points below its scoring average that ranks seventh nationally.
The Tide found its touch in the opening 20 minutes. It scored the last 10 points of the first half to take a 30-23 lead to halftime.
Freshmen Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph scored 14 of Alabama’s first 18 while finding rare success from the 3-point line. Lacey made all three of his perimeter shots before halftime and Randolph was 1-for-2. As a team, Alabama’s seven made 3s was the most since beating Oklahoma State on Dec. 21.
The lead swelled to 11 on a Releford 3-pointer with 17:33 left.
Then Creighton adjusted. It switched to a 2-3 zone defense that it hardly ever used. Alabama struggled as the Bluejays scored 10 straight in less than 2:30 to tie the game at 37.
“It’s not that we freaked out or anything,” Lacey said. “We just weren’t as aggressive as we were in the first half. We was being passive and no one tried to attack and that gave them confidence.”
Still, Creighton (29-5) never took a lead on that hot streak. Green swatted a layup after a steal that could have put the Tide behind for the first time since late in the first half.
Instead, the Tide surged back ahead. Green, who scored 12 in his final Alabama game, and Jacobs scored the next six points followed by a Releford 3 and a Hankerson basket. Alabama led 50-43 with 8:03 when Creighton’s next wave hit hard.
This time the Bluejays scored the next 13 points and led 57-50 after Jones’ 3 found the net with 2:41 left.
Creighton made nine of its 21 shots from behind the arc including a stretch of five straight in the first half. McDermott went 1-for-2 on 3s and made half of his 12 shots to score 16 after averaging 23.2 a game.
Steele said Alabama’s defense frustrated the All-American.
“We tried to be physical and I think it bothered him a little bit,” Steele said. “In the sets they ran, we tried to make the catch tough for him. We tried to keep him from getting the ball. We knew coming in we weren’t going to shut him out, but we tried to make it difficult for him.”
McDermott said Alabama’s active defense eventually wore down the low post players and Alabama lost only its second of 19 halftime leads. The two 7-footers Carl Engstrom and Moussa Gueye never left the Tide bench.
Either way, Alabama’s tumultuous season ended in controversy. It was Creighton who advanced to face North Carolina on Sunday. Grant couldn’t say whether or not a foul should have been called on the final play and Steele didn’t put the burden on one play.
Rather, Grant pointed to the future while using the almost-heroic moments of Friday afternoon as the example.
“Today,” Grant said, “wasn’t our day.”
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star. Follow him on Twitter @UARollTide_Star