By: Chris O’Brien
Saginaw High School was only 30 miles away from where I grew up, but it felt like an entirely different basketball world.
Midland was voted #1 Tennis Town in the United States.
Saginaw High had metal detectors at the entranceway. We had a security guard escort us to and from the bus.
Midland High basketball games were decently attended, especially against our cross-town rival, but seating was always comfortable. You were never sitting on someone’s lap.
Saginaw High: absolutely packed. Felt like the whole town was there. There was an energy in that gym that felt like the most charismatic church in the country. Basketball is religion in Saginaw. Their band was small but mighty, sometimes just a group of four or five drummers filling the gym with the sound of a band 10x their size.
Their cheerleaders were dancers, not the standard “Defense! clap-clap. Defense!” No, their cheerleaders were performers, the sidelines their stage, and I think a few of them could have gone out and scored 15 points per game.
In Midland, basketball was an extracurricular activity. There was no “next level.” I mean maybe the best player on the team had a shot at a Division 2 or 3 school, but the Michigan State, Kansas, Duke, North Carolinas of the world were attended academically, not athletically.
A whole different story at Saginaw High. Their teams might have five guys going to top Division One schools the next year. In my grade, I had the unfortunate task of guarding Draymond Green.
It was awesome to live in the valley, the Saginaw Valley, one of the richest grounds for basketball in the entire country. The next towns over, so to speak, were Flint and Saginaw. Izzo can win national titles from those two cities alone. From grade school through high school I got the chance to see Top 100, Top 50, Top 25 recruits. Future NBA players. In Draymond’s case, future NBA Champion + Defensive Player of the Year.
And they looked the part. They were men amongst boys on the court. They were bigger, faster, stronger. They could take over games, could go 1-on-5, score whenever they wanted. When you’d watch these guys score 35 – 40 points, it was incredible because 1) high school games are only 32 minutes long and 2) the last ten minutes they were sitting out because their team was up by 30.
Some of these guys go on to have remarkable careers at the collegiate or professional level but never do they look more dominant than they do on a high school court.
Collin Sexton was the No. 7 recruit in the 2017 high school basketball class. He was the second-best point guard prospect (depending who you ask) and is solidifying himself in the Top 10 of most NBA Mock Drafts. He’s the type of guy, had he played at Saginaw, who we would have filled up the Midland gym to see him in action.
He will play at Alabama for just one season, but in that short amount of time, he has already contributed one of the most memorable performances in college basketball history.
On Saturday, November 25th, Alabama and Minnesota played one of the most bizarre games I have ever (or will ever) see. It is now known as the 3-on-5 game, but that’s misleading. It was “The Collin Sexton Show.” The game when Collin Sexton went 1-on-5.
This was the only game of the day featuring two ranked teams. No. 14 Minnesota vs. No. 25 Alabama. They were playing out in Brooklyn, the Barclays Center, a neutral court.
The first weird thing about this game is when you looked out at the crowd: the place was empty. I looked it up, the attendance was just 3,469 in an arena that seats 18,000. So, right off the bat, weird atmosphere. Fans began moving down so that everyone* was right there in the first few rows.
*Side note – There’s always like one guy who keeps his family way up in the 300-level seats. I love imagining this situation where the usher comes by, says, “Seriously, it’s ok to move down,” and the dad has too much integrity. “These were the tickets I bought, these will be the seats I stay in.”
Minnesota had control of the game, up 54-37 early in the second half. Things are starting to get a little chippy on the court, culminating in an exchange between Minnesota’s Nate Mason and Alabama’s Collin Sexton. Mason’s trash talking Sexton, the two get up in each other’s face. Refs jog over. Double techs. Mason is tossed.
Rick Pitino’s son (Minnesota’s head coach) goes ballistic. He’s screaming at the ref, ESPN is about ready to blur his mouth. Another technical. Alabama shoots a ton of free throws, about a minute later the lead is down to 57-44 (Minnesota advantage.)
The game just feels tense after the Mason vs. Sexton exchange and the Pitino blow-up. Those tensions are slowly bubbling and right around the 13:34 mark, an Alabama player hits a three and a scuffle begins under the basket. Dupree McBrayer (Minnesota) and Dazon Ingram (Alabama) are ready to go Ali/Frazier down in the paint.
“And we’ve got fisticuffs!” declares the announcer.
Props to the announcer for having “fisticuffs” ready to go in the vocab holster. He was the perfect guy to call this game.
“A scuffle underneath and players are ready to throw! Madness at the Barclays Center Classic!”
All of the players on the Alabama bench were standing up celebrating the made three and then they all dashed onto the court to provide backup in the fight. Coaches came in to break things up, referees pulling players apart. Technicals ready to fly. The announcers mention that Minnesota might have 10 free throws to shoot.
The result was even more bizarre. All of the players on the Alabama bench were ejected, meaning the Crimson Tide would have to finish the final thirteen minutes of the game with five guys; one of whom (Ingram) had four fouls.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, in all my years, at any level.”
It wasn’t even two minutes before Ingram picked up his fifth. Yep. With 11:37 to go, Alabama is down to four players!
But they’re still within striking distance, 61-52.
Fast forward a minute later, and suddenly having four guys would feel like a luxury.
John Petty, Alabama’s second-leading scorer on the season, went up for the shot but then got Zaza’d on the landing (defender didn’t allow enough landing space, twisted ankle).
10:30 to go. Down 67-54. Avery Johnson on the sidelines trying to figure out how to draw up an offense for a 3-on-5* situation.
*Side note – The announcer brought up a point that this is like a hockey power-play. I actually think this is what basketball should do in the last two minutes of a game. Fouling and making the other team shoot free throws should not be a strategy to win. Football, you break the rules you get penalized in yardage. Baseball, a balk is a free base. Hockey has the penalty box. What if in basketball once you hit 10 team fouls in the half, or maybe make it 12-15, call it the “Super Bonus” each foul means free throws for the other team + you lose a player.
The solution? Go 1-on-5
Collin Sexton didn’t look like he had anything left in the tank. He looked exhausted, catching his breath on the bench. All three Alabama guys looked ready to collapse. The announcers were saying Avery Johnson might just go ahead and call the game.
Minnesota didn’t exactly step on Alabama’s throat.
The Gophers had a weird strategy of just standing behind the perimeter shooting threes. They weren’t pulling away with an insurmountable lead. I mean it didn’t seem possible but the door to a comeback was open just a crack.
Sexton hits a three. 81-72
A little bit later, another three by Sexton. 83-76. He’s going 1-on-5!
With 2:43 to go, Alabama had actually outscored Minnesota in this 3-on-5 portion of the game.
Sexton splits through the first double team, then the next, layup is good. 83-80!
1:30 to go. Is Alabama somehow going to win this game??
Sexton had a chance to cut it to one, but the shot rimmed out. Minnesota added a few more baskets, ended up winning 89-84.
But for the second half, most of which Alabama played down a man, then down two men, the Crimson Tide finished with a 55-48 edge.
As for Collin Sexton? He finished the game with 40 points, connecting on 4-of-7 behind the arc.
This game is 100 percent worth going on YouTube and watching if you haven’t seen it yet. In terms of March Madness, keep this one stored away for later use. Any team that can fight like that with 3-on-5 has the heart to make a run.
And when you have a Lottery Guy like Collin Sexton, you can make the other team look like a bunch of high school kids.