Alabama’s rally on the road to knock off top-ranked Houston validates Crimson Tide team as dangerous, elite

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So often, as these things normally go, an outstanding Saturday in college hoops was highlighted by a top-10 upset. But it’s not that No. 1 Houston lost 71-65 at home to No. 8 Alabama, it’s how it happened. Because for most of the afternoon, Houston was Houston, which is to say: Houston was domineering. Aggressive. An absolute pain in the ass to face. 

Seemingly, it was on its way to another conclusive victory.

Alabama lost its gait and got into a huge hole. Understandable. But here, in this spot, a revelation. A Crimson Tide team with six freshmen and sophomores in the rotation didn’t wilt. And for the second time in less than two weeks, Nate Oats’ group claimed a win over a No. 1-ranked squad. The first came at the PK85 in Portland, Oregon, on Nov. 27 — a four-overtime classic against then-No. 1 North Carolina. 

On Saturday, the toppling of Houston only required a customary 40 minutes and was even more impressive. 

The Fertitta Center looked like it was quaking for much of the game, and with good reason. This was the first time Houston ever hosted a top-10 matchup on campus. The Cougars were bruising Bama. We’ve seen it dozens of times in recent seasons with this program, which has transformed its reputation from “most underrated team in the country” to one that’s flat-out recognized and respected for how great it’s become under Kelvin Sampson.

So when Houston got up by 15 (44-29) a few minutes into the second half, it looked like a wrap. Sampson-coached teams do not surrender 15-point leads at home; he’s one of the game’s best coaches. 

But Houston got upended in a stunner. 

So rare is Alabama’s feat of beating a second No. 1 team this early in the season, consider this: The last team to do it was Duke in 1965, and per ESPN Stats & Information, that year’s Duke team and this Alabama team are the only ones to pull it off. It doubled in its historic significance in this regard: Saturday was Alabama’s first road victory over a top-ranked team since a 70-67 takedown of No. 1 UCLA on Jan. 28, 1983. 

The Cougars entered the day ranked second in defensive efficiency at And per KenPom and — two of the best predictive metrics in the sport — Houston was performing as the best team in college basketball through the first five weeks. Houston was holding foes to 47.3 points. 

Alabama got 71.

A year removed from the Tide winning by a point (in controversial fashion) in Tuscaloosa against the Cougars, this W was even more hard-fought. It not only gives credence to Alabama’s standing in the sport, it should push it into the top five of the AP Top 25 when that poll refreshes Monday afternoon. 

“This is one of those character wins that shows the guys are going to keep fighting no matter what the score is,” Oats told the media afterward. “We could have easily given up when we were down 15. The start to the second half wasn’t great. We made some changes with the bench guys which allowed us to hang in there. We kept clawing away until we finally took the lead and then we were able to pull away down the stretch. That’s a tough team. You have to give Houston a ton of credit. They give you everything you can handle. They had our offense looking like a disaster for most of the game and that’s total credit to them.” 

This Alabama group, it’s a team we don’t know so well, not yet anyway. It’s a young one, with new faces ready to make their mark — like Mark Sears. His go-ahead 3-pointer put Bama up 63-62 with less than 90 seconds remaining. It never trailed after that triple, which came in the closing push of an outrageous 42-point sprint in the final 17 minutes (besting 1.20 points per possession in that stretch and outpacing the Coogs’ points two-to-one, a feat that’s extremely unlikely to be matched by any other team against the Cougars over the next 3-4 months).

The composure! Alabama just made itself a threat against every remaining opponent on the schedule thanks to a comeback victory in this style. Alabama’s going to be in the mix to win a competitive SEC, and because of its youth it’s going to take on a few losses that will serve as learning opportunities. But this is the type of win that should linger. 

Remember what Alabama signified last season? It was the most enigmatic team in the sport, a squad capable of beating or losing to almost anyone. Wins over highly ranked teams such as Gonzaga, Houston, Baylor, Tennessee and Arkansas … and then losses to the likes of Iona in addition to bad SEC teams: Missouri, Mississippi State, Georgia and Vanderbilt. 

This season could be different. It should be different. One reason why is Alabama freshman Brandon Miller, who until Saturday was playing better than any frosh in college hoops. Against Houston, he was spotty: eights points on eight made foul shots but 0-of-8 shooting from the field. But Miller hit six free throws in the final minute to help ice it. Guts. The idea Alabama could beat a top-five team without Miller showing up and playing even an average game was not credible. Instead, the other newbies came through like vets. Freshmen Noah Clowney (16 points) and Jaden Bradley (12) weren’t rattled in that cage. Another freshman, Rylen Griffen, was also earning key minutes in clutch time. Clowney, Bradley and Miller scored Alabama’s final eight points to clinch it. 

“They take you out of what you want to do, and they did a great job of taking Brandon out from what he does,” Oats said. “But he showed a lot of character stepping up and making free throws late. We were able to get contributions from a bunch of different guys. Huge program win. Not sure how many teams get to play two No. 1 teams in non-conference, but I think that shows that we’ve gotten this program to where we can play with anyone in the country.”

A win like this one, in that environment, stays with players and coaches. That is confidence juice. That will help them win another game or three or five in league play and potentially in March. 

Alabama fans have come to annually expect at least one top-10 matchup on the football field, but it’s not like that in hoops. This was the Tide’s first top-10 game on the hardwood in 20 years. You wouldn’t think that the case with how they played in the second half against one of the best teams in college basketball. In beating Houston, Alabama validated its status right alongside UH as just that: one of the best teams in college basketball. 

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