The 3-pointer: Three takeaways from Alabama's 81-70 win over Michigan State
After beating up on lesser competition to begin the season, Alabama basketball stood just as tall against one of the Big Ten’s bullies Thursday night. Facing its first real test of the year, the No. 18 Crimson Tide outslugged No. 12 Michigan State, 81-70, to open play in the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, Ore.
The victory keeps Alabama in the winner’s bracket where it will face No. 20 UConn on Friday at 8:30 p.m. CT. A win in that game would see the Crimson Tide play for the tournament championship against either No. 1 North Carolina or Iowa State on Sunday.
Brandon Miller once again led the Crimson Tide, recording 24 points and nine rebounds while shooting 8 of 19, including 4 of 7 from deep.
With the win, Alabama improves to 5-0 for the first time since the 2017-18 season. Here are three takeaways from the game.
More Miller time
Alabama fans, enjoy Brandon Miller while you have him. The five-star freshman isn't long for this level. Playing on the biggest stage of his early college career, Miller looked out of place Thursday night — not because he couldn’t keep up with Power Five competition but rather because his polished approach already appears ready for the NBA.
Miller was a man among boys, pacing an Alabama team that started the game cold from deep. The freshman forward recorded 17 and five rebounds in the first half, hitting a buzzer-beating 3 to send the Crimson Tide into the break with a 42-37 lead.
"I feel like the 3 I hit [at the half] was definitely an energy boost for me and, I guess, the team," Miller said. "I feel like we could have started off better, but things happen. That was the change of the game."
After getting off to a fast start, Alabama’s offense slumped midway through the first half, allowing Michigan State to lead by as many as 7 points. With the Crimson Tide trailing, 30-25, late in the half, Miller took matters into his own hands, providing a solo 6-0 run by making a shot and a free throw before sinking a 3 to give Alabama the lead.
Following his buzzer-beating 3 at the half, Miller drained another shot from deep to give Alabama a commanding 50-41 lead with 17:22 remaining. The Crimson Tide didn’t look back from there, cruising to the easy win.
On top of his offensive performance Miller earned the team's Hard Hat Award given to the player with the most "blue-collar" points.
"It's not just shooting the ball, playing well, he also got downhill," Oats said. "He got to the free-throw line, converted at the free-throw line. All in all, he had a pretty good game. He needs to play well for us to be at our best, and he did."
Alabama proves its toughness down low
Heading into Thursday night’s game, Oats openly wondered if his team would be able to maintain its early-season toughness against a Michigan State team known for its physicality. Alabama entered the game leading the nation in rebounds per game (56.0), offensive rebounds per game (19.5) and rebound margin (24.5). However, the Crimson Tide’s previous opponents didn’t quite measure up to Tom Izzo’s typical Spartans teams.
It turns out Alabama has the muscle to bang with the nation’s big boys as well. The Crimson Tide was outrebounded 42-40 but outscored the Spartans 38-30 in the paint.
"I thought our guys played tough," Oats said. "We handled Michigan State's physicality, and Michigan State was extra physical with us like we knew they were going to be. ... We may be a little skinnier than them, but we have some toughness. We have some guys who are pretty tough even though they might not weigh as much as those guys on Michigan State. I was happy with our guys."
Alabama's ability to score near the rim kept it in the game early. Ten of the Crimson Tide’s first 11 field goals came on either dunks or layups which helped compensate for a 1 of 8 start from beyond the arc.
Noah Gurley led Alabama's bigs with 10 points and six rebounds while fellow starting forward Charles Bediako recorded 8 points and four boards to go with a pair of blocked shots. Noah Gurley also had a nice game off the bench, tallying 12 points and four rebounds.
A couple of big performances off the bench
Alabama’s depth was always going to be key in a tournament that featured three quality matchups in the span of four games. Thursday night, the Crimson Tide benefited from its deep roster as its bench outscored Michigan State’s 24-13.
Gurley's 12 points were a season-high, while Jahvon Quinerly recorded his first double-digit game since returning from a torn ACL, chipping in 10 points, three rebounds and three assists in 18 minutes. Quinerly scored 8 of his points in the second half, coming up especially big after Miller picked up his third foul with 12:32 remaining.
"He's starting to feel comfortable again," Oats said of Quinerly. "That's against a high-level defensive team, a tough team, and he was doing what he does. He gets in the paint, collapses the defense, makes the right reads, gets the ball where it needs to go and opens everything up for us."
Michigan State was short-handed as starting forward Malik Hall (foot) and guard Jaden Akins (ankle) missed the game due to their respective injuries.