NEW YORK -- After watching his game-winning jump shot attempt from the top of the key bounce off the rim, followed by the final horn, Colorado guard Alec Burks collapsed to the ground, and buried his head in his arms.
A chance to play in the National Invitation Tournament championship game clearly meant something to him.
It clearly meant a lot to both teams who battled in the second NIT semifinal on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
"It's a great win for our team," said Alabama coach Anthony Grant, after his team's 62-61 victory over Colorado. "We are excited about the opportunity to compete for a championship."
Both Alabama and Colorado felt seriously jilted by the NCAA tournament selection committee back on March 13, Selection Sunday, when they didn't see their school’s name pop up on the TV screen. But each won three games over the past couple of weeks to get to New York City. And both teams played their hearts out in front of 6,082 fans at The World's Most Famous Arena on Tuesday night.
This matchup featured two teams with very different strengths. Alabama came in among the top 10 teams in the country in both field-goal percentage defense (38.3), and points allowed per game (59.2). Meanwhile, Colorado averages 80.1 points per game, and shoots 47.5 percent from the field -- both numbers among the top 20 in the country.
Alabama led by six at the half, Colorado led by five with six minutes remaining. And it was a nail-biter down the stretch. Trevor Releford, Alabama's freshman point guard, made a terrific baseline move for a lay-in with 12.6 seconds remaining, turning a 61-60 deficit into a 62-61 lead. And then Burks (20.5 ppg) -- the No. 18 scorer in the country (20.5 ppg), who had 20 points on the night -- created a great look off the dribble in the closing seconds, but just couldn't get the shot to go down.
"I'm really proud of our team and the way we fought, the way we competed and the way we hung in there and we just came up a little bit short tonight," said Colorado coach Tad Boyle. "We had some really good looks, and they just made one more play at the end than we did, and that was the difference in the game. That's what makes it so hard."
The Crimson Tide will play Wichita State (a 75-44 landslide winner over Washington State in Tuesday's first semifinal) on Thursday night for the NIT title. And that title is important to Alabama. In the Crimson Tide's locker room after the game, you couldn't help but notice what was written on the white board, in big red letters:
"DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS"
"Our guys very quickly turned the page [after Selection Sunday] and we were very excited about the opportunity to continue to play," Grant said. "There are a lot of teams that would have loved to have had the opportunity to compete in the NIT and we were fortunate to be one of those teams. So we are excited to be here in New York and our guys are excited about the opportunity to win a championship."
Many people think the NIT is no longer relevant, buried amidst the ever-growing NCAA tournament hype. Yes, it's not the Big Dance. It's a second chance -- for teams to continue to grow and develop, and for kids to prolong their college basketball careers.
"I was just praying that we'd come out with a victory," said Alabama forward JaMychal Green, who had a game-high 22 points but fouled out with 2:27 remaining. "My teammates and Coach told me they had my back [after fouling out]."
Releford said his game-winning layup was the biggest shot of his career.
Sounds like some people are taking this tournament very seriously.
Alabama and Wichita State are not playing in the tournament they dreamed of playing in this March. But they are still playing. And on Thursday night, they will play for a championship, in Madison Square Garden.
And win or lose, that will be a memory that lasts a lifetime.