PITTSBURGH (AP) — Avery Johnson has spent plenty of time trying to convince Alabama freshman star Collin Sexton to take ownership of his play and the Crimson Tide, a message the coach has repeated frequently during his team’s uneven season.
It finally seems to be getting through. The fact it took until March hardly matters.
“(Sexton’s) giving more speeches to our team, which is showing leadership,” Johnson said.
Make no mistake, however. It’s the point guard’s play — and not his talk — that sent the Crimson Tide into the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Sexton shook off a shaky and foul-marred first half to score 21 of his team-high 24 points after the break as Alabama took control late in an 86-83 victory over Virginia Tech on Thursday night.
“The coaches prepare us for stuff like this,” Sexton said. “They do so many hours of film, and they tell us all the answers to the test.”
The proof came during the second half.
Sexton made six of 10 field goals and 10 of 14 free throws over the final 20 minutes, including a jumper that got a friendly bounce off the back of the rim and a turnaround that gave the Crimson Tide a bit of breathing room in a game that featured 10 lead changes and never saw either club go in front by more than seven points.
No. 9 seed Alabama will face top-seeded Villanova in the East Region’s second round on Saturday. The Wildcats had little trouble dispatching Radford earlier Thursday.
Things weren’t nearly as easy for the Crimson Tide, who needed Sexton and freshman backcourt mate John Petty — and a serious uptick in defensive intensity in the late going — to reach the round 32 for the first time since 2006.
Sexton and Petty were in elementary school back then. Now they’re the centerpiece of Johnson’s dynamic attack with the Crimson Tide (20-15). Alabama shot 60 percent (30 of 50) from the floor. Petty, mired in a serious slump near the end of the regular season, finished with 20 points while making six of eight 3-pointers, including three in the first half to help the Crimson Tide hang around until Sexton got going.
“When I get in that type of mode, I feel like no one can stop me from shooting the ball,” Petty said. “I always have my eyes locked on my target and I’m going to hit it.”
Point guard Justin Robinson led the eighth-seeded Hokies (21-12) with 19 points but fouled out after being whistled for a charge with 48 seconds remaining and Virginia Tech down 78-74. Hokies coach Buzz Williams got a technical foul after erupting in frustration. Sexton made one of two free throws and then added two more on Alabama’s ensuing possession to give the Crimson Tide just enough of a cushion.
“I shouldn’t have had a towel in my hand,” Williams said. “That made it look worse.”
The bigger issue for Virginia Tech was an inability to keep Alabama in check. The Hokies forced 17 turnovers but couldn’t slow down Petty and had trouble whenever Sexton got into the lane. Alabama made 20 of 30 2-point shots, including 11 of 14 in the second half.
Johnson paid tribute to New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, who died on Thursday at age 90. Benson gave Johnson, a New Orleans native, a Super Bowl ring after the Saints won their only title in February 2010 after Johnson served as a consultant and honorary ambassador for the club.
“He meant so much to the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana and so many people,” Johnson said.
Alabama: Sexton might be the thinking man’s version of Oklahoma star point guard Trae Young. Sexton lacks Young’s shooting touch, but his quickness makes it nearly impossible to keep him out of the lane. And rather than force shots late, Sexton tried to get to the rim.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies are on the rise in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but success in March remains elusive. Virginia Tech has just one NCAA Tournament win in the last 21 years.
Alabama will try to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2004 when it takes on Villanova.
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