PITTSBURGH — Joking or not, Alabama basketball coach Avery Johnson wanted to make a point.
During practice on Wednesday and leading up to the game on Thursday, Johnson wanted to make sure his team wasn’t satisfied with just making the NCAA Tournament.
“I said with all the hoopla that’s going on with our team, if you guys are not ready to advance, just tell me now and I’ll fly home commercial,” Johnson said Friday night. “If you’re ready to advance, then let’s go to work. They’re not just happy to be here. They really want to give it their best shot.”
Alabama basketball gave it their best shot and then some. Virginia Tech came out scorching, making 7-of-9 three pointers, but Alabama kept the game close at the half. The Hokies made just two threes in the second half.
Johnson called the win a “sign of growth” as Alabama basketball stood in and took Virginia Tech’s best punch, and never flinched in an 86-83 victory in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the program’s first tournament win since 2006.
The win sets up a date between Alabama and No. 1 Villanova on Saturday. Tipoff has been set for 12:10 p.m. ET/11:10 a.m. CT on CBS.
It was Alabama’s two star freshmen who did the heavy lifting offensively. Collin Sexton and John Petty combined for 45 points, 6 rebounds and 9 assists. The Crimson Tide also got an emotional lift from the return of forward Donta Hall (10 points) as well as a combined 16 points off the bench from Avery Johnson Jr. and freshman Galin Smith.
Petty spent the past few days hearing about his struggles shooting the ball away from Coleman Coliseum.
Petty had seemingly turned things around in the second half against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament, but most of his made shots came with the game out of reach so it wasn’t clear how he’d perform in this type of pressure situation.
For at least one night, Petty put the talk of his poor shooting on the road to rest, making 6 three pointers and scoring 20 points. It was Petty who kept Alabama basketball within striking distance in the first half with timely threes to halt any hint of a Virginia Tech run.
Petty saw this performance coming based on his preparation leading up to the game. He put up 100 or more threes after every practice.
“When I hit the first one in the corner, it felt good, but I kind of thought it was off,” Petty said. “But when I hit the second one from Dazon (Ingram), that’s when I knew it was probably game time.”
Sexton dealt with foul trouble in the opening half, and had just 3 points in the first 20 minutes. He found his groove in the second half, scoring 22 of his 25 points.
Sexton carved up Virginia Tech’s defense, slicing through the lane for tough layups and drawing fouls. Sexton scored Alabama’s last 9 points on the night.
“We say it all the time whether it’s Popovich, Saban, it doesn’t matter. When you get in a 9-1-1 situation on the floor, you don’t have time to call a cute play with three or five seconds,” Johnson said. “Players have to make plays. You recruit them so that if they’re in a situation where they need to solve a problem, solve the problem and don’t look at the coach.
“Fortunately, Petty solved some problems for us tonight. Collin solved some problems. … That really is a testament not to coaching ability, but to players making plays in adverse situations.”
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