TUSCALOOSA — In its accustomed locker room configuration, there’s a hallway right outside where Alabama’s basketball team congregates, moments after Avery Johnson finishes a pregame or halftime address. The squad talks for a moment, reflecting on the coach’s words and jogs out to the court.
Florida’s recently renovated Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center afforded no space in which its visitors could loiter so, at halftime Saturday against the Gators, Johnson’s words were left to linger.
Fourteen first-half turnovers yielded a six-point deficit against the country’s 23rd-ranked team for the Crimson Tide — a young bunch Johnson said is incapable of sustaining success, in part, because it possesses little veteran leadership.
Without their usual place to huddle, Alabama remained in place in the moments before the second half. Junior Donta Hall suddenly rose.
“Just give them a little hype talk,” Hall said Monday. “So-called turn up.”
Some saw it differently.
“He went at us,” Tide guard Avery Johnson Jr. said. “He was saying some of the same things coach Avery was saying, (assistant) coach (John) Pelphrey.”
At long last, an Alabama team without a healthy senior on its roster — one Ken Pomeroy ranks the 348th least-experienced of 351 Division I teams — found a voice from a captain. Heeding Hall’s pleas, Alabama out-scored Florida 41-17 in the second half en route to a 68-50 victory.
“It was fun to hear it,” Avery Johnson Sr. said. “He’s one of our captains. That’s something that I think really good teams — the teams that are really special — they have lieutenants and generals on the roster and not just a bunch of followers.”
Hall’s on-court maturation is significant, transforming from a 200-pound freshman to a 6-foot-9 forward of 265 pounds who is the Southeastern Conference’s third-leading shot blocker. He is the team’s most efficient player, shooting 74 percent from the field, and averaging double-figure points for the first time in his three-year career.
His acceptance of this role, one he shied away from fully embracing Monday, may be more crucial. Senior Riley Norris’ season-ending hip injury left Hall and Avery Johnson Jr. the team’s only upperclassmen who gets significant minutes within the rotation — and they’re both just juniors.
Of the need for his leadership emergence, Hall said, “I’ve been told that a couple times. I actually got told that Saturday, too. I knew I had to step up because I was playing kind of down but I just felt like with me bringing my energy and getting the rest of the team involved.”
It manifests in different ways, not just this rousing halftime speech.
One week after breaking his wrist — one he still says is only “85 to 90” percent — and undergoing surgery Hall asked Johnson to play in the team’s 76-71 win against Auburn on Jan. 17. His foremost reasoning, according to the coach, was “I’m one of the captains.”
He played 15 minutes and, yet, Johnson awarded him the game ball. Only scored two points, too. To the surprise of few, it was a dunk. Forty-seven of Hall’s 102 field goals are dunks, perhaps the most emphatic ways in which the Luverne native can rouse his sometimes sleepwalking team.
“I feel like I give off good enough energy a lot of times,” Hall said. “Some days I honestly feel myself down on energy, but I bring myself up, which brings the team up, with my dunking and blocking shots.”
Tuesday evening in Starkville offers Hall another opportunity. Still nursing the wrist injury, he played just 19 minutes in the Tide’s 68-62 win against Mississippi State on Jan. 20.
Alabama led that game 41-22 at halftime before offering a putrid, 31 percent shooting effort in the second half, more of the maddening inconsistency the team must avoid. Hall was asked how to do so on Monday.
“Keeping our energy up, honestly,” he said.
A task he said he’ll spearhead.