ST. LOUIS -- Collin Sexton is not the type to take losses lightly. He’ll scream at refs, scream at opponents, and even scream at himself on occasion. It’s jarring. There are times when Alabama’s 6-foot-2 freshman guard appears unhinged, his hands balled up into tight fists on defense, eyes wild and full of fury. But it’s the take-no-prisoners persona -- the “Young Bull,” as he’s been dubbed -- that’s turned him from an overlooked high school junior to a possible lottery pick in the NBA draft. It’s the same attitude that’s looking more and more like it could carry this once underachieving team far this postseason.
On Thursday, Sexton went coast to coast to hit a game-winning, buzzer-beating floater against Texas A&M as Alabama advanced to the third round of the SEC Tournament in St. Louis. And on Friday, against No. 1 seed Auburn, he did that one better.
Sexton would not be denied. It didn’t matter that Alabama was down 10 at halftime; didn’t matter that two of its big men (Daniel Giddens and Alex Reese) were knocked out early with injuries; didn’t matter that the rest of his teammates were seemingly out of it, a combined 0-for-9 on 3s. As soon as the ball was inbounded to start the second half, everything changed. Sexton hit three straight shots beyond the arc and took over, scoring 31 points to lead the Crimson Tide to a 81-63 victory while also locking up a spot in the NCAA tournament.
“Sexton is a tremendous, tremendous individual player,” a dejected Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told reporters following the game. “He’s a tough cover.”
Even that might be an understatement. When Sexton’s 3-point shot is falling, he becomes close to unguardable. Whether it was Davion Mitchell or any other Auburn defender, they simply couldn’t keep Sexton in front of them. He’s just too fast, too quick with the ball in his hands. When he took over and the momentum of the game turned, Pearl said, “I could see it bothered us more than it should have.”
After Sexton hit the second of his three-straight 3-pointers coming out of the half, it was clear he was not going to be stopped. He put out one hand up to rally the crowd, stared down the Auburn ball handler and then pointed both index fingers to his temples, as if daring him to make a mistake.
Not long after, Sexton intercepted an ill-advised cross-court pass, sprinted downcourt and delivered a behind-the-back dime that Donta Hall slammed home for a rim-rattling dunk.
“He can’t hold you, Collin!” one particularly boisterous fan shouted at Sexton from midcourt. “He can’t hold you!” And the proverbial “he” could not. Sexton went one-on-one, knifed his way into the paint, drew contact and completed the and-one.
Sexton said coaches told the team at halftime to keep fighting. They told them to run. And Sexton said they told him, in particular, “Every time I’m open, just shoot it. Don’t worry about missing.”
“Honestly,” Sexton said. “I feel like we’re just having fun.”
Of the nifty assist to Hall, Sexton said he was simply rewarding the big fella for running down the court.
“He breeds confidence in our team,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said of his star combo guard.
And it was confidence that this Alabama team had been lacking of late. It’s the same team that almost fumbled away a spot in the NCAA tournament by losing five straight games to end the regular season. It’s the same team that was disjointed offensively -- “sputtering” was the word Johnson used -- and seemingly without an identity. Sexton could score in bursts, but he didn’t have much of a supporting cast. It got so bad with fellow freshman John Petty that, upon missing nine of his last 11 3-point attempts, he was removed from the starting lineup against Auburn for just the fourth time all season.
But throughout the slide, Johnson maintained an even tone. His speech to his trailing team at halftime against Auburn was calm and maintained only “understandable language,” he said.
He knew, he explained, what Alabama was capable of all along.
“This speaks to the character and core of our team,” Johnson said afterward. “This is no magic formula. I have two outstanding guards. Outstanding.”
To his right was Sexton, his ankles taped heavily, still soaking in a second straight signature game.
“We lost those five games and came back winning two,” Sexton said. “I feel like we’re on a roll right now and having fun.”
With Sexton playing so well and the rest of his team gladly coming along for the ride, Alabama just might have become a threat not just in the SEC tournament but also in the NCAA tournament next week. The so-called Big Dance is a time when stars like Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier have shined brightest, carrying their teams further than anyone projected.
Might Sexton be that kind of player? At least one coach seems to think so.
“If he is one of the top players in the country -- he’s been talked about all year long -- certainly he’s capable of doing tremendous one-on-one damage,” Pearl said. “The key is to be able to utilize his ability without it taking away from the team aspect, and he’s in pretty good rhythm right now. He’s doing what he’s doing, he’s really productive, and the other guys are sort of fitting in around him. Which is tough -- when you have a great player like that, you have to let him go.”
And that’s what Pearl saw in Alabama, along with everyone else watching in the Scottrade Center in St. Louis and abroad. Sexton and the Tide ran up and down the court, demolishing Auburn in transition.
That speed, that ability to attack with Sexton at the helm, might be the formula for an Alabama run in the postseason.
“They’ve got something going on right now,” Pearl said.