NEW YORK | A team that has survived on defense all season long needed a single stop to advance to the NIT Championship - and got it.
The University of Alabama scored on a Trevor Releford layup with 12.6 seconds remaining, then did enough defensively to make Colorado star Alec Burks miss a jump shot as time expired, lifting UA to a 62-61 victory over the Buffalos at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
"Defense is what gives this team a chance to win," Crimson Tide head coach Anthony Grant said. "That's what won for us tonight."
The win puts Alabama into Thursday's NIT title game against Wichita State, which blew out Washington State in the first semifinal.
Alabama survived a strong Colorado run in the second half despite losing star forward JaMychal Green, who picked up his fifth foul with 2:27 to play. The Crimson Tide was leading when Green fouled out, but Burks scored two free throws to cut the lead to 60-59. Colorado then took the lead on an Andre Roberson steal and dunk with 1:53 to play.
But Alabama got two stops, giving the Crimson Tide a final possession. With Green out, Releford took control, penetrating the Colorado defense for the game-winning layup.
"Trevor is a playmaker," Grant said. "As a freshman, he's had to grow into that. But at the end, I wanted to have the ball in his hands. He read the play, they were cheating to the screen so he was able to rip the baseline and make the shot."
"They kept trying to push me into the screen," Releford said. "I was able to get around it and get to the basket."
"This is a big win, with the stakes being as high as they are," Grant said. "Burks took the final shot and he has made so many of those, we were lucky that one bounced off."
The two teams traded runs in the first half. Alabama went on an early 10-0 run to take a 12-5 lead with 13:47 to play, but Colorado answered with a 12-1 run to retake the lead, 17-13, with 10:23 remaining.
Alabama then went on a 17-2 run over the next seven minutes, building a double-digit lead at 30-19, but the Buffs cut that lead to 36-30 on a pair of Andre Roberson free throws before intermission.
Foul shooting also hindered the Crimson Tide, which made just two of seven free throws in the half.
"I think in first half, they were off-kilter because of the zone," Grant said. "Like any good team, they were able to adjust. In the first half, we set the tone, but in the second half, they did."
Alabama (25-11) pushed the lead to 10 points, 40-30, but Colorado came all the way back, tying the game at 47-47 with 11:11 to play and taking a lead of five points, 57-52, at the 6:06 mark.
But despite losing Green to fouls, UA held the Buffs to just five points in the final six minutes for the win.
"I was just praying we could come out with a win," said Green, who led UA with 22 points. "But my teammates told me they had my back and they did."
Burks led Colorado (24-14) with 20 points.
"I thought that was a hard-fought game by two good basketball teams," CU coach Tad Boyle said. "We struggled shooting the ball, but that's a testament to the way they guard.
"They just made one more play at the end than we did."
UA will face Wichita State in Thursday's 6 p.m. title game.