PITTSBURGH — What the closing moments and final results showed, in the opinion of Alabama coach Avery Johnson, was how much his young players had matured. It also showed how much the program has grown.
The Crimson Tide advanced in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years, withstanding a frantic finish to beat Virginia Tech, 86-83. Alabama will play Villanova, the East Regional’s top seed, on Saturday.
Freshman Collin Sexton, who had been called “the best guard in the country” by Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams, overcame a lackluster three-point first half to finish with 25. He had all eight of his team’s points in a pivotal stretch that began with 1:34 left.
“Maybe early in the season, with the performance he had in the first half, he probably would have been average to below average in the second half,” said Johnson, in his third year as a college coach after having been fired by the Nets. “But he’s maturing. He’s growing into manhood. He has accepted responsibility.”
Among those key eight points was one of two technical free throws after Williams argued a charging call against Justin Robinson with 48 seconds left. It wiped out a basket that would have cut the Crimson Tide’s lead to two (and followed an earlier controversial call against Sexton that went Robinson’s way). Williams said afterward that a longtime official who was at the game told him it was a charge.
Alabama (20-15) also was sparked by freshman John Petty, who shot 6-for-8 from three-point range and had 20 points (nearly twice his season average). The coach said those young players have advanced from kids to men. “This,” Johnson said, “is a new season for us.”