How Alabama Almost Pulled Off the Greatest Win in NCAA History

Henry Schweber

The 14th-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers topped the 25th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide 89-84 on Nov. 25, marking Alabama and coach Avery Johnson’s first loss of the young NCAA basketball season. Normally, this would hardly be noteworthy at all. Higher ranked teams are supposed to beat lower ones, especially on a neutral court, as this game was played in Brooklyn. The circumstances surrounding this game, however, made it anything but expected.

Months away from the vaunted March Madness 64-team basketball tournament that engages hundreds of millions of people every year, I can confidently say that we’ve probably already seen the best game of the season.

You may ask how this is possible. Sure it was a close game, but what made this so remarkable and significant? Well, with 13 minutes and 39 seconds to go in the second half of the game, things got interesting. As Alabama was down 57-50 at the time, two players got tangled up underneath the basket near Alabama’s bench.

Fired up from the brief shoving match and intensity of the game, the Crimson Tide reserves poured out onto the court. They didn’t get seriously involved in a fight, but since players on the bench are prohibited from encroaching the court, the entire set of Alabama reserves were ejected from the game. If Alabama were to make a comeback they’d need to go over 13 minutes without making a single substitution, an incredibly difficult task.

Somehow, that task got even more difficult as the game went on.

After just two minutes, Alabama sophomore Dazon Ingram fouled out, leaving the Tide with only 4 eligible players on the floor. A minute after that, freshman John Petty twisted his ankle and had to be helped off the court.

Down 65-54 with over 10 minutes left to play, Alabama found itself down to just three able-bodied and eligible players: freshmen Collin Sexton, Galin Smith and Riley Norris. Playing with two fewer people than your opponent opens up a world of possibilities for them, allowing two of Alabama’s players to be double-teamed and have gaping windows to pass on offense. Down 9 at the time, the commentators wondered aloud whether or not Alabama should forfeit. The Minnesota lead was bound to grow and the Alabama players must’ve been exhausted.

Despite the adverse circumstances, the Crimson Tide continued in their playing efforts, and they slowly chipped away at the Golden Gopher’s lead. Facing a constant stream of double teams and having his teammates be denied off ball, Sexton reached another plane of excellence, dribbling through a swarm of defenders to shoot long 3-pointers and orchestrating a 1-2 zone on defense to stop the bleeding just enough for them to have a chance.

Somehow, the Crimson tide outscored the Golden Gophers 26-16 at one point to narrow the deficit to a mere 3 points. They could’ve easily given up and recognized that it simply wasn’t their day, that making a double-digit point comeback while at a multi-player deficit would’ve been nearly impossible. Instead, they saw the opportunity and began to play with more of a chip on their shoulder. If they were to lose this game now, nobody would be surprised. They were playing three on five. If they won though, it would go down as the best and most unprecedented win in basketball history.

Once they started to go on a little bit of a run, the Golden Gophers began to get nervous; what would happen if they fell victim to the greatest upset of all time? This wasn’t some Division III, all walk-on team that was playing either—they were actually favored against Alabama before the game. While Alabama’s comeback attempt came up a little bit short, they certainly carried themselves like victors after the game, while Minnesota seemed to be relieved that they were able to avoid a catastrophic upset. It just goes to show that a game is never over until the final whistle blows.