TUSCALOOSA — The Nate Oats era at Alabama began with a thrilling albeit largely familiar loss that flashed the high-flying potential Crimson Tide fans have been craving since the former Buffalo head coach arrived in April, yet still ended in disappointment.
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 left in an 81-80 loss Tuesday night to visiting Penn inside 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) had a 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.
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 Oats scheme fits him like a glove.
Lewis posted a career-high 30 points in his first game under Oats, shooting 11-of-22 from the floor, including 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting into the second half.
Lewis also added a team-high eight rebounds and five assists, 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 6 seconds left to go ahead for good.
Lewis was fouled in the closing seconds but rimmed out both free throw attempts with an opportunity to take a lead or tie the game with 2 seconds left.
It was more of the same as the Crimson Tide, which finished 15-of-22 from the free throw line, including 9-of-14 in the second half.
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.
Which is why 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.
Jones went up for a block but landed awkwardly at the base of the goal, where he remained for more than a minute before trainers helped him up and walked him back to the locker room with Alabama tied 22-22 with eight minutes left in the first half.
Jones would return to the bench three minutes later with what was described as a left elbow injury and was listed as questionable to return, but never re-entered the game.
Losing arguably their toughest player, even for a brief period, seemed to spark something in the Tide players on the floor as Lewis and Shackelford responded with back-to-back 3-pointers and James Bolden had a pair of free throws as Alabama went on an 8-2 run to lead 30-24 with 5 ½ minutes remaining in the first half.
Penn would come roaring back, though, with an 8-0 run to lead 35-33 before a layup by freshman Jaylen Forbes with 52 seconds left tied it at 35-all at the break.