TUSCALOOSA — The Nate Oats era began at Alabama with a thrilling but largely familiar loss that flashed the high-flying potential Crimson Tide fans have been craving since the former Buffalo head coach arrived in April.
Sophomore point guard Kira Lewis Jr. asserted himself as the go-to player in Oats’ high-octane offense with a career-high 30 points — including a go-ahead 3-pointer with 20 seconds left — but rimmed out a pair of free throws with 2.4 seconds remaining in an 81-80 loss Tuesday night to visiting Penn at Coleman Coliseum.
Freshman guard Jaden Shackelford scored 16 points in his Alabama debut but struggled shooting the ball, finishing just 6-of-20 from the floor, including 3-of-13 from 3-point range.
Graduate senior point guard James “Beetle” Bolden, a transfer from West Virginia, added 10 points in his debut, while junior wing John Petty Jr. had 9 points on 3-of-10 shooting, including 2-of-6 from 3-point range.
Alabama (0-1) continued its rough showing from deep, combining to make just 11 of 38 3-point attempts Tuesday, including only 4-of-21 (19 percent) in the second half as Penn pulled away with an 8-0 run over the first 2:18.
It was Penn’s first win over an SEC team since 1996-97.
Here are three takeaways from Alabama’s first loss of the Oats era:
1. In case there was any doubt, this is Kira Lewis’ team.
Just an 18-year-old sophomore, Kira Lewis Jr. is unquestionably Alabama’s leader and this new Nate Oats scheme fits him like a glove.
Lewis made 11 of 22 from the floor for the game, including 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting into the second half.
Lewis also added a team-high eight rebounds and five assists in the game, including grabbing a key defensive rebound that led to a game-tying dunk by junior forward Alex Reese to pull even at 77-77 with 2:15 remaining in game.
Lewis then hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 20 seconds remaining to give Alabama an 80-79 lead but Penn’s Jordan Dingle hit a game-winning running jumper with six seconds left to go ahead for good.
2. Herb Jones elbow injury could be costly.
Herb Jones isn’t Alabama’s most dynamic scorer, but he could arguably be its most important player, especially given all the dirty work he does defensively. So, any sustained absence for the 6-7 junior wing could be costly for the Tide.
Jones sat out the final 28 minutes Tuesday night with a left elbow injury after a scary fall with 8:01 left in the first half.
3. Shackelford gets debut start, but struggles shooting from deep.
Freshmen have made it a habit of shining in their first years at Alabama. First it was Collin Sexton, then Lewis last season.
This year rookie shooting guard Jaden Shackelford is making an early push to be that playmaker for the new-look Crimson Tide, if he can continue making shots.
Earning the start in his official debut after leading the way with six 3-pointers in last week’s exhibition win over Georgia Tech, Shackelford made an early impact with the first of his three 3s two minutes into the game. His second 3-pointer gave Alabama a 28-22 advantage with 6:53 remaining in the opening half for eight of Shackelford’s 16 points Tuesday.