PITTSBURGH – In a stretch of 4 minutes, the game — and season — was over for Alabama basketball.
The Crimson Tide trailed by 5 points at halftime Saturday, but a 3-point barrage from Villanova during an 18-1 run helped balloon the Wildcats’ lead to 20. The rest of the NCAA Tournament second-round game was only a formality as No. 1 Villanova stomped Alabama 81-58 to advance to the Sweet 16. The Wildcats made 17 3-pointers.
Villanova’s Mikal Bridges led the second-half charge, scoring 22 of his 23 points in the final 20 minutes.
Alabama was dismantled by a better team, but there’s no reason for Crimson Tide fans or players to hang their heads in coach Avery Johnson’s opinion.
“Don’t like to lose, but unbelievably proud of them,” Johnson said of his message to the players in the locker room.
The Crimson Tide finish with a 20-16 record, marking the first 20-win season in Tuscaloosa since 2012-13. Alabama advanced to its first NCAA Tournament since 2012 and won its first NCAA Tournament game since 2006.
Alabama wasn’t supposed to be here. The Crimson Tide dropped their final five games of the regular season and appeared to be a shell of the team that won five games against top 25 opponents.
Heading into the SEC Tournament, Alabama had to win a game to remain in the NCAA Tournament conversation, and needed two wins to feel comfortable. A buzzer-beater over Texas A&M and a blowout victory over Auburn later, and Alabama found itself in the NCAA Tournament.
Still, few people gave the Crimson Tide a shot to knock off Virginia Tech, which it did on Thursday to earn their first tournament win since 2006.
Johnson said there is a lot to learn from this loss as he continues to work toward building Alabama basketball into a championship contender.
“In my introductory speech to the team in my first two years, I haven’t had an opportunity to show on video what we’ve done in the NCAA Tournament,” Johnson said. “I have such a wealth of resources now because of this two-game experience.”
Added Alabama forward Braxton Key, “I think we’re just cracking the surface.”
Alabama’s youth manifested itself in different ways this season. Playing down to the level of competition and losing games they shouldn’t have forced the Crimson Tide into an 8-9 game instead of potentially earning a No. 4 or 5 seed and avoiding a No. 1 seed until later in the tournament.
There was a point when Alabama basketball had a legitimate shot of earning a top 4 seed and a double bye in the SEC Tournament, but the five-game skid ended those hopes.
That likely will be one of Johnson’s biggest preaching points ahead of next season: Don’t put yourself so far behind that you must expend so much energy trying to catch up.
“There is a gap between us and Villanova, the top-tier teams,” Alabama center Daniel Giddens said. “But I feel like that gap is closing. I feel like we took a step in the right direction. We’ll be back here next year.”
Giddens acknowledged Alabama still has a “long way to go” before it is at a championship level, but he wants the loss on Saturday to fuel the team.
Alabama likely won’t be this young and inexperienced again in Johnson’s tenure. Star freshman Collin Sexton likely is off to the NBA as a projected lottery pick, but the rest of the team should be back barring something unforeseen.
Johnson said the overall experience was fun and added that he loved the challenge.
“It was exciting because of what we’re hearing from our really faithful supporters,” Johnson said. “They wanted us to go to the Final Four, and hopefully we’ll get there eventually. But they’re ecstatic about the steps that we made.”
Johnson can’t recall a time in recent history when Alabama basketball garnered attention on the national level.
“Alabama basketball, I know this was a tough one [Saturday],” Johnson said. “But we made a lot of people proud of us by what we accomplished this year.”
Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne was on hand for both games and liked what he saw this season. Byrne called it a “really positive step” forward for Alabama basketball.
“I really enjoy working with Avery,” Byrne said. “He knows we want him to be our coach for a long time.”