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March 23, 2011

Crimson Tide advances to NIT semifinals

TUSCALOOSA | All year long, the Univeristy of Alabama basketball team had made magic on its home court. So it wasn't about to head to Broadway with a different script.

The Crimson Tide wrapped up its perfect home season with a 19th straight win, pulling away from a game Miami Hurricane team to take a 79-64 victory that propelled UA into the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament.

"With what these guys have accomplished all year, we couldn't accept anything less than finishing it out the right way," head coach Anthony Grant said. "When we did not get invited to the NCAA (tournament), it was painful for our seniors. So to see those guys so happy a week-and-a-half later, I am excited for them."

Grant was especially excited for senior Senario Hillman, who scored 17 points and was critical in the Crimson Tide's decisive second-half run.

After Miami had erased almost all of a 14-point deficit and pulled within one point, 42-41 with 14 minutes to play, it was Hillman who gave UA its offensive energy. He scored 11 points in the next seven minutes, including a slam dunk off an offensive rebound that ignited the raucous crowd of 8,612.

"I felt like this was one of my best games at Alabama," Hillman said. "I was attacking, playing hard. I tried not to focus on it being my last home game and decided to just go out and play.

"On the dunk, I just kind of timed it. I think it gave us a spark. It led to some momentum on the defensive end." Alabama started the game in furious fashion, harassing Miami with pressure and converting 11 first-half 'Cane turnovers into points. After the first nine minutes, UA had a 24-10 lead.

The pace cooled somewhat as Alabama ran into foul trouble that sent JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell to the bench later in the half, but the Crimson Tide still held a 36-26 halftime advantage.

"We felt like coming in, we could have success with the press, just from watching and scouting them," Grant said. "Their advantage was size and physicality. Our advantage was speed and our ability to be disruptive."

To its credit, Miami came out of the locker room and imposed its style of play in the second half. The Hurricanes opened the half with an 8-0 run and came as close as one point, 42-41, on a DeQuan Jones layup with 14:18 remaining.

"We needed to start the second half like we did the first half, and we didn't do that," Grant said. "When that happened, Miami is too good a team. They cut right into the lead, but what I am proud of is we continued to play."

Paced by Trevor Releford, who had a game-high 22 points, and Hillman, the Crimson Tide gradually pulled away, putting the game out of reach with a 26-10 run. "I think we had them back on their heels at that time (when the deficit was one point) and we didn't take advantage," Miami coach Frank Haith said. "We missed a couple of shots right there and they hit two straight buckets to go back up five. We had it right there. But they responded the way good teams do."

Durand Scott led Miami (21-15) with 19 points.

Alabama will play in Tuesday's semifinal game at 8 p.m., facing Colorado at Madison Square Garden.



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