The Alabama guard’s buzzer-beating shot from a few feet before midcourt swished through the net to give the Crimson Tide a 61-58 win over Georgia on Saturday after a frenzied final sequence.
Rodney Cooper caught the ball and passed it toward Releford — who was sprinting toward the Bulldogs’ 3-point line — with about 2 seconds left after it sprung free from a driving Charles Mann amid contact with defender Nick Jacobs.
“Nick stepped up and Coop was able to get the ball, and he just gave it to me,” said Releford, adding he had never hit a game-winning half-courter and doesn’t even practice them.
“I recognized how much time was on the clock and just tried to get closer and let it go.”
The basket set off a celebration on the court while officials briefly reviewed the play. Releford pranced around the court swarmed by teammates before ending up where it all started just in front of the Georgia bench.
“I knew it was on target, but I thought it was going to be a little bit short,” he said.
The Tide (20-11, 12-6 Southeastern Conference) lost a 14-point halftime lead before Releford’s shot salvaged fading hopes of an at-large NCAA tournament bid. Alabama will be seeded fourth in the SEC tournament and receive a bye into Friday’s quarterfinals.
Grant couldn’t remember being the beneficiary of a game-winner from that distance.
“When he let it go, I wasn’t sure that it was going to make it there, then all of a sudden you watch the flight of the ball,” he said. “It was kind of in slow motion for me. I watched the flight of the ball, looked at the rim, watched the ball. I said, ‘It’s got a chance.’ It went in. My first thought went back to did he get it off in time? I’m going through all that in my mind.”
Mann scored on a jumper in the final minute for the Bulldogs (15-16, 9-9) but missed the subsequent free throw. Nemanja Djurisic rebounded and delivered it to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who buried the tying 3-pointer with 48 seconds left.
“I didn’t think I was going to overtime,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “I thought we were going to win the game and then we ended up losing. How’s that feel? Not very good.”
Mann got the ball and took it toward the basket after Caldwell-Pope batted away a pass. Then Mann lost the ball as he started to go up for the basket right in front of Jacobs, leaving both of them sprawled on the floor for the final shot.
“I’m sure there was contact,” Fox said. “I don’t know how everybody ended up on the ground.”
The victory marks the first time Alabama has reached 20 wins in three straight seasons since Wimp Sanderson’s teams from 1990-92. The Crimson Tide also won all nine SEC home games.
Back-to-back road losses to No. 11 Florida and Mississippi left Alabama’s NCAA tournament hopes reeling. Then Georgia kept coming back.
Djurisic hit a 3-pointer with 1:09 to play to bring the Bulldogs to within 57-53, the third time they had cut a 14-point halftime deficit to four points in the final minutes.
This time the comeback didn’t halt there.
Fox called a timeout and Mann fouled Releford on the full-court press. Releford was 1-of-2 from the line before Mann’s shot.
The Bulldogs were playing less than 48 hours after Thursday night’s 72-62 upset of Kentucky, which followed another 10-point win over Tennessee. They almost knocked off a third-straight NCAA hopeful.
Releford, who had an 18-minute scoring drought after opening with two quick 3-pointers, finished with 19 points. He was 4-of-7 from 3-point range and had three steals. He also had a 3 the first time Georgia closed the gap to four points.
Jacobs finished with 11 points for the Tide.
Caldwell-Pope was just 5-of-15 shooting for 14 points, but had three steals and three assists. Djurisic also had 14 points and six rebounds on 4-of-6 shooting. Brandon Morris had 11 points and hit both 3-point attempts.
Alabama held Georgia scoreless for more than 8 minutes in the first half to take a 32-18 lead into the locker room. The Tide scored 13 straight points during that stretch and went up 30-13.
Caldwell-Pope ended the drought on a jump shot with 2:37 left after missing seven of his first eight attempts.
“I don’t think our team really started fighting until we got punched in the teeth about five times,” Fox said. “I was very disappointed with our start. Alabama was really the aggressor in the first half.”
Alabama’s lone senior, Andrew Steele, sat out his final regular-season home game with an ankle injury.