Lull them to sleep, then amp it up.
Alabama overcame a slow first half with a high-octane second to crush New Mexico 74-67 and advance to the NIT quarterfinals. The lead was 18 before New Mexico caught fire late, slicing the lead to six when the Tide went 11-for-23 from the free-throw line in the closing moments.
The meltdown lost steam and the Lobos eventually ran out of time.
Second-half runs of 17-5 and 9-0 were fueled by the Crimson Tide’s trademark defense in front of a hostile 6,821 in Coleman Coliseum. Alabama now faces Miami on Wednesday with a trip to Madison Square Garden and the semifinals at stake. The game time was not announced Monday night. The Hurricanes handled Missouri State 81-72 in another second-round game Monday evening.
The Tide (23-11) got to the quarterfinals by optimizing opportunities off the Lobos’ 12 turnovers. The giveaways turned into 23 points on the other end as Alabama outscored New Mexico 15-2 in fast-break opportunities. Tide senior Senario Hillman made history early in the game when he recorded his 174th career steal to tie Terry Corner for the program’s career record.
The second-half outbursts were hard for Tide coach Anthony Grant to explain immediately afterward.
“It’s kind of a blur,” he said. “I’d have to go back and look at it. I think the key to the game is what we did on the defensive end and obviously we were able to get out in transition.”
Tony Mitchell took over from there.
His high-flying 23 points led the Tide on an especially aeronautical evening. His second half included a long-range ally-oop finish, a follow slam and a windmill dunk that iced the win away.
Trevor Releford added 21 on a night that didn’t start so well for Alabama.
Forward JaMychal Green averages 15.8 points per game didn’t score until the second half saddled with foul trouble. The Tide offense was stagnant without him.
With the Lobos (22-13) switching between man and zone defense, a deliberate pace followed. Alabama went 11-for-29 from the field in the first half and got nothing from leading scorer.
“I felt that as long as we were with the lead or right there, that it was more important to have (Green) for the duration,” Grant said. “I felt like it was going to be a 40-minute game.”
He didn’t re-enter after going to the bench with two fouls and 10:52 on the clock and zero points in the scoring column. Green’s third foul came 32 seconds into the second half and he quickly returned to the bench.
A two-handed dunk followed Green’s return three minutes later for his first points of the night. He finished with six.
Grant called forward Chris Hines “a warrior” after having to play the full 20 minutes of the first half with Green sidelined.
Releford banked in a 3-pointer from the left wing with 9.1 seconds on the clock to give Alabama the 30-26 halftime lead before the offense really got cooking.
The Tide shot 75 percent from the field (15-of-20) after halftime when Mitchell scored 15 of his 23. Again, the difference was on defense.
“We picked up the pressure and full-court pressed them a little bit and made them uncomfortable,” Mitchell said.
The Lobos hung around, in part, by cleaning up its own mess. Playing without injured leading scorer Dairese Gary, the visitors scored 20 second-chance points off 14 offensive rebounds. Shooting 37.9 percent from the field created ample opportunities.
New Mexico got 18 points from Kendall Williams to lead the visitors who made 9-of-28 attempts from 3-point range.
The win runs the Tide’s home winning streak to 19 games dating back to last season.
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star.