Down the hall, around the bend and through two doors, heads were hanging low. There was nothing little-town about the blues in Alabama’s Madison Square Garden locker room.
The 66-57 beating it took in the NIT title game stung as bad as any — big dance, little dance — losing is losing when a championship was at stake. It was Alabama’s second NIT title game loss joining the 2001 team who lost to Tulsa in the finals.
“It feels bad coming this far and losing in the championship,” said Tide guard Trevor Releford who left the floor with his white jersey pulled over his head. “You want to send the seniors out with a win. When that doesn’t happen, it’s going to be tough.”
In the end, Wichita State (29-8) had more horses and a deeper bench when the Crimson Tide’s leading scorer found foul trouble again. The Shockers’ lead was just five when JaMychal Green went to the bench with four fouls and 10:59 to play.
His return came a few Graham Hatch 3-pointers too late.
The Shocker sharp shooter finished off the Tide (25-12) with a pair of long-range jumpers that left a 12-point deficit when Green reentered with three minutes left. The tournament’s most valuable player finished with 12 points on a night Wichita State maximized its deep bench.
After taking the lead with 6:04 left in the first half, Alabama tied the score at 43 on a Tony Mitchell dunk with 14 minutes to play. Alabama led briefly early in the second quarter.
But whenever the Tide threatened, the Shockers always had an answer. Usually it involved a 3-pointer.
They were 7-for-15, but nearly all came at key moments.
David Kyles buried one right after Mitchell knotted the score to start a quick 8-0 run. Alabama never got closer than four the rest of the way because the depth then became a factor.
Wichita State had 10 players log at least 14 minutes on the floor. Joe Ragland’s 29 minutes made him the busiest, while four Alabama starters saw between 37 and 33 minutes. The big three of Green, Mitchell and Releford scored 27 of the 34 first-half points and 35 of the 57 total points.
Hatch and J.T. Durley each had 12 to lead the 10 Wichita State scorers.
“Their depth, size, physicality and skill was too much for us today,” Tide coach Anthony Grant said.
Bench scoring was a 27-7 advantage for Wichita State even though Alabama won the battle in the lane. The Tide scored 28 in the paint to the Shockers’ 20 two days after the Missouri Valley Conference school scored 48 down low in a 75-44 pounding of Washington State.
Timely perimeter shooting was the difference this time.
Hatch buried a pair of huge 3-pointers to give Wichita State a safe 12-point lead with 3:00 left.
“When he shot those two basketballs late in the second half, the ball was in the air forever,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “It literally seemed to me it took five seconds for the ball to arc. It was a majestic rotation.”
Alabama, on the other end, was ineffective from long range just as it has been most of the season. Ranked 272nd nationally with a 30.2 3-point shooting percentage, the Tide went 2-for-14. Senior Senario Hillman’s connection with 1:37 to play ended a 33-minute drought.
Fellow senior Chris Hines didn’t like Alabama’s shot selection in the second half.
“We were settling for jump shots and we’re not a particularly great jump shooting team — especially from the 3-point line,” he said. “… Any time a team runs their plays and gets open looks and you’re settling for tough jumpers, the game’s probably not going to go your way.”
Alabama also had issues converting in transition even after creating issues with its pressure defense. Forcing 19 turnovers, the Tide scored 17 on resulting possessions but let a few big opportunities pass in the first half.
After winning 20 of the last 26 games and play for a postseason title, Grant said he can find the silver lining in it all.
“You know, we lost to a better team today and we were outplayed,” Grant said. “They did a great job — and you know — I can live with that. I can live with that, and hopefully this experience will make us better.”
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star.