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Once overlooked, point guard Mark Sears has carried Alabama to its first Final Four

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Nate Oats admits it: He whiffed on Mark Sears out of high school.

It’s OK, though. So did every other major college coach.

It is why Alabama’s undersized, high-scoring point guard wound up at Ohio University before finally getting a chance to return to his home state.

Nobody is overlooking the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Sears now. A sharp shooter with the quickness to dart by defenders, he has led the Crimson Tide to its first Final Four heading into Saturday night’s game against top-seeded UConn in Glendale, Arizona.

“I probably screwed up not offering him out of high school,” Oats said. “Not probably, we did screw up.”

He didn’t make the same mistake twice. Sears spent two seasons at Ohio, emerging as one of the Mid-American Conference’s top players. Then the Muscle Shoals native was in the transfer portal and coveted by the same programs who once didn’t think him good enough or big enough.

A player who jotted down goals as a kid that included playing in the Southeastern Conference and making the Final Four picked Alabama, where he’s now the only player from the state on the roster. A surprise as the team’s No. 2 scorer behind Brandon Miller last season, Sears has been a revelation during this Final Four run.

He is averaging 21.5 points a game, second in the SEC behind Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht and 11th in the country. Sears is ninth nationally in 3-point shooting, making 43.4%.

Sears has been even better in the NCAA Tournament, making 17 3-pointers and scoring 97 points over four games. That includes seven 3s against Clemson, after which he was named most outstanding player of the West Regional.

“Did I think he was going to be this good?” Oats said. “Nobody did. Maybe his mom did.”

Lameka Sears has always been her son’s biggest cheerleader. That’s why the TV cameras kept pointing her direction in the stands during NCAA Tournament games, often showing her going through his free throw routine along with him before every shot from the line.

“I have to remind him, Use your legs, Mark. Use your legs,” said Lameka Sears, a travel nurse.

In interviews, Sears is as soft-spoken as his mom is exuberant.

“Coming out of high school, I wasn’t highly recruited,” Sears said after the Clemson game. “My parents, they kept encouraging me to never give up and stay focused, put God first. I just put the work in, trusted God, and now I’m here. That’s really all I can say.”

What were his expectations coming to Alabama? “Coming to Alabama, my expectation, I pretty much achieved most of them and just to be able to do it and being from the state of Alabama means the world to me.”

The progression of his game since high school led him — and Alabama — to the Final Four. Oats said had Sears not stepped up his leadership and defense over the past month, the team’s season would be done.

MAC coaches assured Oats during the second-chance recruitment that Sears could play in the SEC. He needed a shooter and Sears certainly fit the bill.

“Nobody told me he was going to be this good,” Oats said.

Parents Chad and Lameka Sears have been with him every step of the way. Lameka Sears has attended all but one of her son’s games at Alabama, missing last season’s LSU road game when they were in a wreck en route. If Chad misses a game, it’s probably only because he’s at one of their daughter Makenzie’s track meets, volleyball or basketball games.

Lameka Sears shared an emotional moment with her son on the court after the Clemson game. The dreams and prayers for their son to be successful and see his work pay off had come to fruition.

“It was almost like an out-of-body experience, because the very thing that we prayed for in secret was literally manifested not only for us to see, but for the nation to see,” she said. “I get choked up even thinking about it. It was a wow moment.

“It’s like a David versus Goliath. I looked at it like David being Mark, Goliath being the naysayers. I said, ‘Well, David had a rock, a slingshot, we’ve got a 3-point shot.’”

That shot has been on target so far.


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AP Sports Writer