TUSCALOOSA — As the huddle broke following a head-scratching timeout late in regulation of Saturday’s double-overtime loss at Florida, Nate Oats pulled his star sophomore point guard over to the side for some individual coaching.
The conversation was brief, but the first-year Alabama head coach made clear to the 18-year-old Kira Lewis Jr. that he had other options that didn’t involve calling a timeout when the Crimson Tide was up on host Florida 83-81 with 23 seconds remaining.
“I talked to Kira too about playing more aggressive,” Oats explained Tuesday. “Any time we’re in a situation where they have to foul us, we’ll take a layup, so if we can get the ball and run up the floor for a layup, we’d rather do that than have to go to the free throw line. (But) a lot of that’s on me. We have to do a better job in practice practicing that type of stuff.”
Lewis’ timeout proved especially costly because of what followed as Florida’s Noah Locke stole the inbounds pass from John Petty Jr. and immediately turned it into a game-tying layup with less than 21 seconds left in the second half.
And while that late-game sequence isn’t the only reason Alabama dropped a 104-98 decision in double-overtime Saturday, it further highlighted an ongoing issue during Oats’ inaugural season at the helm — the apparent lack of a true on-court leader to come through in crunch time.
This came after the Crimson Tide (7-6, 0-1 SEC) allowed a 21-point first-half advantage disappear in the closing minute of regulation, resulting in overtime.
“We just have to do better in end-of-game situations to be able to finish that type of game,” junior forward Galin Smith said. “We saw we were able to compete with one of the best teams in the conference, we just weren’t able to finish.”
But this wasn’t the first time this season Alabama struggled in close games, with four of its six losses coming in games when it was within five or fewer points in the final minutes of regulation.
Still, just one game into conference play, the Tide will have plenty of more opportunities to prove it can finish, including Wednesday night against Mississippi State (9-4, 0-1 SEC).
That said, where it’s going to find that initiative is yet to reveal itself.
With just one senior on the roster — graduate transfer guard James “Beetle” Bolden — Alabama’s makeup doesn’t necessarily allow for what most consider a traditional go-to veteran leader like then-senior Retin Obasohan in 2016 or the graduate combination of Corban Collins and Bola Olaniyan in 2017.
In fact, much like two years ago when future NBA lottery pick Collin Sexton eventually took command as a true freshman, the lack of any clear-cut captain might require this year’s Tide to turn to more non-traditional means for on-court direction when it matters most.
That’s where it might require a leader-by-committee approach.
When asked about his team’s leadership this season, Oats pointed to three veterans that effectively share those duties: Lewis, Petty and junior wing Herb Jones.
“I don’t think you have to have just one leader per say,” Oats said. “I mean, it’s Kira’s team. He’s the point guard, he’s on the draft boards. We talk about that, but he’s also quiet. So maybe he’s not going to be that rah-rah, vocal guy.
“I think Petty’s a lot more vocal, talks, and he’s done a really good job being a good leader, playing hard on both ends, maybe our best two-way player. And then you have a guy like Herb, when the team voted in the offseason, and when we came in here, he was the one everybody pointed to being the leader.”
All three were on the court during the late-game collapse — Jones fouled out with 42 seconds remaining in the second overtime period — yet none stepped up when the moment called for it Saturday on the road.
In fact, Lewis missed his last two field goal tries of regulation, including a potential game-winning 3-pointer in the closing seconds, while Petty missed three straight field goals over the final 4:25 of regulation before a made layup with 29 seconds left.
Ultimately though, how Alabama does over its next 17 conference games will determine whether this year’s team can find its way back to the NCAA tournament in Oats’ first season, and much of that is dependent on how its on-court leadership develops down the stretch.
“We need (Jones) to lead, we need Petty to keep leading, we need Kira to understand as the point guard and one if not the best player (on the team) by a game-to-game basis, we need the point guard to be great every game and kind of take ownership of the team,” Oats said.