Alabama busts out late to UConn, taking first loss of the season

Alabama rebounded from a 15-point deficit on UConn Friday night but fell apart in the final seven minutes and lost their first game of the season.

The Tide’s 82-67 loss means Alabama will meet North Carolina at 2:30 pm CT Sunday for a third-place finish in the Phil Knight Invitational. The Tar Heels, ranked No. 1 in this week’s Associated Press poll, were upset by Iowa State for their first loss earlier Friday but will retain their top spot through Monday.

“The good thing about losing to UConn is that you’re up against the country’s No. 1 in two days,” said coach Nate Oats.

Alabama (5-1) had to give the Huskies a gut punch in the early game at a sparsely attended Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Ore. UConn brought its own energy out of the gate, choking Alabama’s offense for much of the first half while forcing 16 turnovers by halftime. Those first-half errors, more than Alabama made in 22 full games last season, came from eight different Tide players and resulted in the Huskies’ 17 points.

“I thought our sales in the first half killed us,” Oats said. “But we did a good job. I thought we showed a lot of struggle when we came back.

The Tide fell back as much as 15 points but ended the first half on a 9-0 run. The team then closed their five-point deficit midway through the second half to level the game, but were never able to regain the lead. UConn then pulled away late to improve to 7-0 and faced Iowa State in the tournament championship game.

“We just fouled too much,” Oats said of Alabama’s 24 personal fouls on UConn’s 23. “They walked [21-of-24] from the free throw line. Fouling just kills all of our defensive-end rushes. If we needed stopovers we couldn’t get them.”

Despite his troubles with turnovers, Alabama shot 4 from 6 to three pointers in the first half while passing UConn by one. But the big shots the Tide needed in the second half never came as Alabama went 2-of-10 from beyond the arc after the half.

Freshman Brandon Miller led the team for the fifth season this season with 18 points, including 3 from 6 on three points. Freshman guard Jaden Bradley scored 12 points and another freshman guard Rylan Griffen hit both of his deep shots, but veteran guards Mark Sears and Jahvon Quinerly combined finished 1 of 6 with three pointers.

“Our offense struggled at the same time as our defense as they continued that run to break them up in the second half,” Oats said.

Oats played all 11 of their healthy players in the first half, with all featured for at least four minutes. Some of the coach’s frustration showed when he was called out for a technical foul early in the second half, apparently wanting the Huskies to be called for a flop when Miller drove to the basket.

A brief altercation ensued before halftime when Alabama guard Jahvon Quinerly and UConn’s Tristen Newton showed up to exchange words outside the UConn bench. Huskies trainer Danny Hurley came over to tell the two players apart, then other players from both teams joined before Quinerly left the situation and ran to the locker room.

“It was nothing,” Hurley told ESPN in his halftime interview. “I think it was more the officials who didn’t take both teams off the pitch. Very limited clapping.”

Alabama entered the week ranked 18th in the Associated Press poll, beating 12th-state Michigan Thursday night to start the Phil Knight Invitational. UConn, No. 20 in the AP poll, had beaten Oregon to advance against Alabama.

“If we lose to North Carolina – which obviously is very possible, they’re No. 1 in the country – you leave here 1-2 and you don’t feel very good after you win Michigan State and you’re on a two-game losing streak.” said Oats. “And North Carolina says the same thing. They didn’t come here as the country’s No. 1 to get out of here 1-2.”

Alabama has lost its last four games to AP opponents No. 1, most recently to Auburn in February. The last time the Tide beat a No. 1 AP was Stanford during the 2004 NCAA tournament, and the last time it happened during the regular season was in January 1994 against then-No. 1 Arkansas.

“We’re both at a point where we probably feel like it’s — I don’t know if you can have a competitive game in college basketball in November, early December — but it’s a big game that we both enjoy got,” said Oats. “They’re obviously going to be in pretty good spirits when they take a loss, so we probably won’t get them at a good time, to be honest.”

The Tide and Tar Heels last met in the Battle 4 Atlantis during Oats’ first season in 2019, a loss in Alabama. The last time Alabama defeated North Carolina was in 1989.

Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @micerodak.