Inspired Alabama Dominates Illinois in NIT Opener
Two days after the firing of its coach, Alabama went into Tuesday’s night game with the mentality he instilled in them over their one, two, three or four years together.
Take it one game at a time, focus on the things you can control and, in the end, win.
In front of a sparse but vibrant crowd of 2,348, Alabama dominated Illinois, 79-58, in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament for a coach who wasn’t even there.
On Sunday afternoon, to the surprise of many, athletic director Bill Battle released a statement that Anthony Grant had been fired after six seasons as head coach at Alabama. Emotions ran high when Grant told the team personally afterward. But even when the Crimson Tide earned an NIT bid later that night, it knew nothing was going to change as far as the actual game was concerned.
"Our biggest thing was just keep fighting," said senior guard Levi Randolph, who played in 133 career games under Grant over four seasons. "Same habits, same thing we’ve always done. Just keep fighting. Coach (Grant) always put us in a position to win, so we just tried to go out there and do those things."
During one eight-minute stretch in the first half, the Crimson Tide went on a 20-0 run. At one point, it led by as many as 30 points. In all, it led for 38 straight minutes after two Randolph free throws gave Alabama a 5-4 lead with 17:59 remaining in the first half.
“I told them in the locker room that this was the proudest I’ve ever been of a team,” interim head coach John Brannen said. “I’ve known Anthony Grant since I was 18 years old – that’s over 22 years I’ve been with that man – and I guaranteed them that he was at home just as proud. We were playing for more than just ourselves tonight. This is Coach Grant’s program, as I’ve mentioned many times. He’s asked us to carry it on in terms of going forward, and we’re going to do that to the best of our abilities.”
By halftime, Alabama (19-14) led 46-22, its largest of the season and the most points it’s scored in the first half all season. For the entirety of the second half, Alabama’s lead sat comfortably between 19 and 30 points.
Fittingly, Randolph and Rodney Cooper, Alabama’s two longest-tenured players and four-year starters under Grant, led the way for Alabama with 20 and 19 points, respectively.
“We kind of talked about it before the game, the seniors did,” said Randolph, who became the 26th player in program history to reach the 1,300-point plateau. “We said we got a redo of Senior Night. It feels good to be able to get a win in our last game in Coleman (Coliseum).”
Tuesday’s night game was never even supposed to take place in Tuscaloosa. Despite playing at home, Alabama was the “away” team against the visiting Illinois (19-14). The Fighting Illini, a No. 3 seed in the 32-team NIT, was forced on the road as the higher seed for the second straight year while its home arena, State Farm Center, undergoes renovations.
Last season, a No. 2-seeded Illinois team beat Boston University in the first round before falling to Clemson in the following stage of the tournament. In both games, the Fighting Illini should have been the home team as the higher seed.
“I’m not going to have excuses. I knew the deal when I took the job,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “I knew that our arena was going to be renovated, and I knew the deal. So we have no excuses. I don’t care if the game’s played in Chicago, Indianapolis, Tuscaloosa or Siberia, we expect to compete, period. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Alabama, which became the 34th Division I program to reach 1,600 wins in its program history after defeating the Illini, has been mostly successful in its recent NIT appearances. The Crimson Tide reached the championship game in 2011 and came within a point of a semifinals berth in 2013.
Now, Alabama is set to travel to Coral Gables, Florida to face No. 2-seeded Miami (FL) at 10 a.m. Saturday. The Hurricanes defeated North Carolina Central, 75-71, earlier in the evening on Tuesday.
"As competitors, we want to keep moving forward, keep playing," Cooper said. "It’s a blessing to keep moving forward and playing so we’re looking forward to playing a good ACC team."