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Alabama slams Illinois in emotional first game after losing its coach

John Brannen (left) coaches his first game for Alabama. (Photo via UA Athletics)
John Brannen (left) coaches his first game for Alabama. (Photo via UA Athletics)

TUSCALOOSA,Ala.–Alabama isn’t in the Big Dance, but it still has something to prove.

In its first game without recently fired head coach Anthony Grant, the Alabama men’s basketball team entered Tuesday night’s NIT matchup against Illinois with uncertainty. But interim head coach John Brannen and the team decided to play better than it had all season, walloping the Illini 79-58 in front of a sparse Spring Break crowd.

This was a quick reversal from the dour emotions and confusion over the Grant firing on Sunday. But it gave Alabama and its seniors another chance to end their careers at Coleman Coliseum on a positive note.

“After their senior night, after we lost that game, I think they wanted to do it the right way, and they did,” Brannen said. “But those guys are such high character guys that it wasn’t about their last time in Coleman. It really wasn’t. They were able to rally around each other over the last two days. We really built a cocoon around our team and we kind of showed who these young men are tonight.”

The cocoon they built was out of necessity. The players and staff — and much of the media — were surprised by the firing of Grant, but players like senior guard Levi Randolph wanted to continue into the postseason and dedicate the games to his former coach.

“I know he wants us to keep going, keep playing like he always told us,” Randolph said. “You know, he taught us life. You’re never a victim. You always have to believe in yourself and believe in what you’ve started. It’s a process, and we just want to keep building on the things that he laid the foundation for.”

Randolph led Alabama in scoring against Illinois with 20, followed by Rodney Cooper with 19 and Retin Obasohan with 15. With the win, Randolph will play his 135th game for the Crimson Tide in the second round of the NIT, passing Trevor Releford for the most games played in Alabama history.

Alabama only trailed for 13 seconds in the game — when the score was 4-3 — and then was firmly in control, going on runs of 20-0 and going into halftime up 46-22.

Illinois head coach John Groce knew there was something different about this Alabama team.

“I thought that they had a cause today, and I thought they came out with a chip on their shoulder today,” Groce said. “I thought their effort level, their energy level, in particular the majority of the first half, but I think the first eight minutes was outstanding so give them a lot of credit.”

While Alabama athletic director Bill Battle has begun his immediate international coaching safari, the men’s basketball team is playing with emotion and without trepidation, keeping its former coach firmly in mind.

Alabama will visit Miami in the second round of the NIT at 10 a.m. on Saturday.

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