Alabama mounts 15-point comeback to knock off No. 1 Houston on the road

Alabama did it again.

For the second time in 13 days, the Tide knocked off the No. 1-ranked team in the Associated Press men’s basketball poll. Alabama recovered from a 15-point, second-half deficit to storm back Saturday afternoon and defeat Houston, 71-65.

The Tide’s road win at Houston’s Fertitta Center came after it beat then-No. 1 North Carolina in Portland, Oregon on Nov. 27. With the two wins, Alabama became only the second team in the history of the Associated Press poll to beat two different No. 1 ranked teams twice in the same regular season, joining Oklahoma in 1990.

That meant coach Nate Oats showed up soaking wet to his postgame news conference for the second time after another wet locker-room celebration.

“I don’t mind,” Oats said, his drenched dress shirt and sport coat visible. “If we keep beating No. 1 teams, we take it to the cleaners. All this stuff can be cleaned pretty well. They got me with some Gatorade instead of just water, this game, so I might actually have to take a shower this time.”

For the first five minutes of the second half Saturday, Alabama was drowning.

The No. 8-ranked Tide had twice opened five-point leads in the first half over the top-ranked team in the country, but there were nine lead changes over the eight minutes before halftime that sent Alabama into a four-point hole, 31-27 , by the start of the second half.

Houston, as part of a mid-game 18-2 run, ballooned their lead to 15 points by the 17-minute mark of the second half. But that became the high water mark for the Cougars, whose lead fell into the single digits by the 13-minute mark and was lost entirely with three minutes remaining.

Junior guard Mark Sears’ three-pointer with 3:03 on the clock gave Alabama a one-point lead, its first since the first half, and after Houston tied the score on a free throw, the Tide never looked back. Freshman Noah Clowney scored a go-ahead basket with 1:12 left, then freshman Brandon Miller knocked down all six of his free throws on three trips to the line in the final minute.

“This is one of those character wins that shows our guys are going to keep fighting no matter what the score is,” Oats said. “We could have easily given up down 15. The start of the second half wasn’t great. Kind of made some changes, went with the bench guys, hung in there. Kept clawing away at the lead, finally took the lead and then pulled away from them.”

Houston, which opened the game 3-of-14 shooting before its mid-game surge, missed nine of its final 11 shots as Alabama’s defense clamped down. The Cougars scored only one field goal in the final five-and-a-half minutes, and only two in the final eight minutes.

“That’s the No. 1 team in the country, too,” Oats said. “If we can do that against them … you can get stops against anybody we’re playing on the schedule the rest of the year, if we really lock in, pay attention to the scouting report and do what we have to do. “

It was an against-the-odds comeback for an Alabama team that entered as 8.5-point road underdogs and did not get a single field goal from its leading scorer this season, Miller. The five-star forward finished 0-for-8, including 0-for-5 from three-point range.

“They took Brandon out of what he wanted to do,” Oats said. “Brandon showed a lot of character by stepping up and making all his free throws late after we had struggled to make them early.

“At halftime I kind of told him, like, we’ve got to do more to affect the game. They’re trying to take you out. Like, you can do more than just score the ball. Your shot’s not dropping, what are you gonna do? So we kind of challenged him defensively. He was a lot in the second half defensively. Can you go get an O-board, can you get a defensive rebound?”

Miller had five rebounds, two steals along with two turnovers in 30 minutes. He sat on the bench for a seven-minute stretch in the second half when Alabama began its comeback with junior college transfer Nick Pringle on the floor, instead.

“We’ve got a lot of players,” Oats said. “Obviously Brandon is talented, he’s really good. He’s a 6-9 guard that can do a lot. But for a freshman who’s never played college basketball before, you can’t expect him to be Superman every night out. We’ve got to get production from lots of guys.

“Lots of guys stepped up at different points. I think it shows our depth.”

Miller re-entered the game with nine minutes to play and for a stretch played alongside three other freshmen in Jaden Bradley, Clowney and Rylan Griffen as Alabama continued its recovery on the road against the nation’s top-ranked team.

“Rylan Griffen coming back to his home state of Texas I thought was huge in that run,” Oats said. “Jaden Bradley was big on both sides of the ball.”

Clowney finished with team highs with 16 points and 11 rebounds, while Bradley had the Tide’s second-most points with 12 along with five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers.

Alabama (8-1) entered the game with turnovers as one of its problem areas, with its 21.5 percent turnover-to-possession rate ranking 301st in the country. The problem showed up again Saturday with nine turnovers in the first 10 minutes, and 12 by halftime — including a team-high four by guard Jahvon Quinerly. Three more came during Houston’s surge in the first five minutes of the second half, but the Tide did not turn the ball over again after that.

“I don’t know that we made too many adjustments,” Oats said. “We tried to re-emphasize to our guys what we’ve been telling them all week in practice. We tried to simplify it for them. I think [Houston] started backing off their trapping of the ball screens when we started handling it a little better. If we handled it better in the first half, the pressure may have come off. They trap you hard.

“Some of it, we need to just need to take care of the ball. Some of its back to high school basketball: you take care of the ball. Quit traveling. We had three trips in the first half.”

The nation’s leader in rebounding margin at 13.9 entering Saturday, Alabama held a significant early-game advantage over the Cougars and finished with 44 rebounds to Houston’s 39, although the Cougars had one more offensive rebound than the Tide’s 12.

“You got to give Houston a ton of credit,” Oats said. “They give you everything you can handle. Our offense was looking like a disaster for most of the game. That’s total credit to them. They take you out of what you want to do.”

Alabama shot 40 percent from the floor but had eight of its shots blocked by Houston, including four against Quinerly. The Tide was shooting 14-of-26 on free throws until Miller’s six makes in the final minute.

Alabama finished 7-of-23 on three pointers, with back-to-back makes by Griffen and Sears midway through the second half helping to cut Houston’s deficit to five points before Sears’ go-ahead triple later in the game. Guard Nimari Burnett finished 2-of-4 on his three pointers after missing all seven of his attempts over the past two games.

The Tide became the first team since Duke in 1965-66 to record two wins over No. 1-ranked teams before January of a given season. Duke beat UCLA on consecutive days in December 1965.

“To be honest, to me, I don’t really care about the [opponent’s ranking] numbers,” Clowney said. “I want to beat every team that steps foot in front of us.”

The win is Alabama’s fifth against an AP top-5 opponent since Oats became coach in 2019. The Tide previously beat No. 4 Auburn (2020), No. 3 Gonzaga (2021), No. 4 Baylor (2022) and No. 1 North Carolina (2022).

“Huge program win,” Oats said. “Not sure how many teams get the chance to play two No. 1 teams in non-conference, let alone beat them. It shows where we’ve gotten this program to, we can play with anyone in the country at this point.”

Saturday marked Alabama’s sixth-ever win against an AP No. 1 opponent. It previously defeated Kentucky in 1978, UCLA in 1983, Arkansas in 1994, Stanford during the 2004 NCAA tournament and then North Carolina last month.

Alabama returns home to host Memphis on Tuesday night at 8 pm CT. The Tigers hosted Alabama last season and raced to a 92-78 win in FedEx Forum.

“We’ve got to take care of business no matter who it is,” Oats said, noting losses last season after wins against top-five teams. “We can’t have a letdown Tuesday when we play Memphis.

“We’ve got to have the same mentality, whether it’s No. 1 team on the road, whoever it is — at home, neutral, road — we’ve got to bring it every night.”

Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.

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