SEC champion Crimson Tide survives rival LSU, completes SEC basketball gauntlet with tournament win
At long last, March Madness is back. The 2021 NCAA Tournament Selection Show has come and gone after a week stacked with interesting, exciting, hard-hitting matchups across America’s college basketball conferences. For the SEC’s regular season champion, the Alabama Crimson Tide, their narrow SEC tournament final win over LSU locked up a 2-seed for the Big Dance. The Tide (24-6) narrowly survived a great effort from the Tigers, winning 80-79 to polish off a perfect 3-0 record within the confines of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
In two prior meetings with Will Wade’s squad, Alabama won both times, and by substantial margins. In Baton Rouge on January 19, the Crimson Tide shot the ball about as well as a team possibly could en route to a 105-75 victory. In Tuscaloosa two weeks later, LSU again fell by a score of 78-60. To get to one another in the SEC tournament finals, they had to overcome great performances from tough opponents. Both teams earned a double-bye to the conference quarterfinals; top-seeded Alabama took down Mississippi State 85-48, and 3-seed LSU dealt a crippling blow to the NCAA tournament hopes of Ole Miss with a 76-73 win. The Rebels were among the selection committee’s first four out when the tournament field was revealed. In the semifinals, Alabama rallied back from a double-digit deficit to upend Tennessee 73-68. LSU outplayed Arkansas, one of only two teams to beat Alabama in the SEC this season, en route to a 78-71 victory.
In the SEC title game, as is always the case, a lot was at stake. Alabama could complete the SEC basketball gauntlet by winning both the league regular season and tournament crowns. For LSU, a win would mean avenging two of their worst losses of the year. Awaiting the winner was also the SEC’s automatic bid to the Big Dance.
The first half opened with an 8-0 Alabama scoring run. LSU did not allow their third meeting with Alabama to get out of hand quickly, though, and with effective perimeter shooting from Javonte Smart and Cameron Thomas, as well as solid play from Trendon Watford, they did not allow Alabama to widen their leads and stayed with one of the nation’s top teams. In fact, the Tigers would lead until a short Alabama run at the end of the half sent the teams to the break with the Tide up 40-37. As well as multiple other Alabama players, eventual SEC tournament MVP Jahvon Quinerly continued to play well during the half, and he was one of the catalysts for his team’s scoring run.
The second half was also not devoid of excitement. Watford, an alum of Mountain Brook High School whose commitment to the Tigers over Alabama made him extremely unpopular with Tide faithful, continued to decimate the Tide. He led all scorers in the game with 30 points. Smart and Thomas did not cool off much, and all three players hit key shots late to stay within striking distance of Alabama, who also made the three work for them. Among those who had made threes throughout the game were Quinerly, Keon Ellis, Alex Reese, and Jaden Shackleford (the Tide’s leading scorer). The teams effectively went back and forth as the half went on. The game’s final moments were the most memorable. Javonte Smart stopped Alabama from extending a 76-71 lead with a three and later gave his team the lead with another perimeter make. After Alabama took its lead back, Watford scored inside and was fouled to make the game 79-78, LSU, with under a minute to go. He missed the free throw, and Herb Jones, the SEC Player of the Year, secured the ball and ran right past Watford (who was playing with four fouls) and scored the eventual game-winning bucket with just under 20 seconds on the clock.
The craziness did not end there, however. On the ensuing LSU possession, Keon Ellis, who has played great basketball for the Tide during the conference tourney, blocked a shot attempt out of bounds with 7.3 seconds to go. The inbound went over Watford’s head, and after he secured it, he was forced to hoist a three-point attempt which fell well short of the basket. However, LSU’s Aundre Hyatt caught the ball and sent it towards the rim, where it bounced out. Subsequent putback attempts didn’t go and Alabama got to celebrate the program’s first SEC tournament championship since 1991.
After the win, Nate Oats, the SEC Coach of the Year, acknowledged the tremendous accomplishment in his postgame remarks, and referred to Alabama as ‘a championship school’. In a landmark year for the basketball program, they have this title to go with the football team’s recent title game victory over Ohio State.
Hours later, when the teams were seeded, Alabama and LSU ended up in the same region. If both teams can make it to the Elite Eight, they will stand opposite each other for what would be the final time in 2020-21. Fans could only imagine what might happen if these two met again, particularly after the exhilarating, exciting game of basketball they have just played.