It’s hardly noteworthy if, in November, the country’s 14th-ranked men’s college basketball team beats the 25th-ranked team. And that’s exactly what happened Saturday in Brooklyn: the Minnesota Golden Gophers took down Alabama, 89-84. How the teams got to that result was so remarkable, however, that the contest will be hailed as the game of the season, even after March produces its standard catalog of upsets and buzzer-beaters. That’s because Alabama was forced to play three-against-five for more than 10 minutes in the second half—and the Crimson Tide nearly overcame a double-digit deficit and won the damn game doing so.
To understand how this happened, it’s first necessary to find out why this happened. Why did a basketball team find itself playing with only three players for more than 10 minutes in an official, real-life game? Was there a scurvy outbreak? Spontaneous combustion?
The bizarre scenario began with 13:39 left to play in the second half, when two players scuffled underneath the basket near the Alabama bench. The Crimson Tide reserves, riled up by the brief shoving match, scampered a few feet onto the court. It wasn’t much, but sitting players are forbidden from encroaching the court, and the referees ejected Alabama’s entire bench. Alabama was already losing 57-50 at this point, and if the Tide wanted to pull off the comeback, they’d have to do so without making a single substitution.
That’s when things started to get really strange. Alabama sophomore Dazon Ingram fouled out with 11:37 left on the clock. A minute after that, freshman John Petty rolled his ankle and had to be helped off the court. Trailing 65-54 with 10:41 still to play, Alabama found itself down to just three able-bodied, eligible players: Collin Sexton, Galin Smith, and Riley Norris.
It was at this point that the commentators on the game’s live stream—befitting the strangeness of this contest, it was available only on Facebook—wondered aloud whether Alabama should forfeit. Things were so dire, the production crew rolled out a chyron excerpting Rule 3, Sec. 1, Article 3 of the NCAA rulebook: “When there is only one player participating for a team, that team shall forfeit unless the referee believes that both teams have an opportunity to win.”
Any sane referee would’ve thought Alabama had no opportunity to win. But they somehow managed to narrow Minnesota’s lead to three points in the waning moments. It’s hard to pick out my favorite part of the Alabama comeback. Maybe it was seeing the Minnesota players, who so gleefully hollered with each Alabama ejection, look befuddled and shell-shocked as they failed to unlock the Crimson Tide’s 1-2 zone.
Or maybe it was one of Sexton’s many baskets. The Alabama freshman scored 40 points and immediately became the coolest player in all of college basketball. Successories should sell motivational posters featuring Collin Sexton. Instead of an image of a lion or summeting mountaineer, it’d be a picture of Sexton shooting over three defenders along with the text “MAKE IT HAPPEN” or “PERSEVERANCE.” I’d hang one over my desk.
I will implore you to watch the game for yourself, because it is awesome. If you want to skip ahead to Sexton, Smith, and Norris’ Spartan-like battle against Minnesota’s full squad, it begins around the 1 hour and 49 minute mark of the video below.
This wasn’t the first time an undermanned college basketball team succeeded against all odds. Chuck Klosterman wrote at length about a 1988 North Dakota junior college tournament where a team had to play three-against-five for extended minutes. That team, United Tribes Technical College, actually managed to beat their full-strength opponent, but it wasn’t televised.
Sexton and his two wingmen may have come up short, but, at the final whistle, they carried themselves like victors while Minnesota’s squad looked relieved to escape with the win. College basketball trades in a currency of upsets, and the fact that we’ll be talking about this non-upset for years underscores just how great Alabama’s three-man wrecking crew was. Thank goodness we have the tape.