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March Madness: Alabama pulls away late Clemson to reach first Final Four ever

March Madness: Alabama pulls away late Clemson to reach first Final Four ever

LOS ANGELES — Clemson's best ever NCAA Tournament run is over, thanks to another unexpected source.

Alabama, behind a career night by freshman Jaren Stephenson, surged ahead and cruised to an 89-82 win in Elite Eight play at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles on Saturday night. This sent Nate Oats and the Crimson Tide officially to the Final Four for the first time in program history.

Stevenson, after a career-high Grant Nelson game that seemed to come out of nowhere in the Sweet 16, scored a career-high 19 points and went 5 of 8 from the 3-point line in the win. He scored nine total points in the NCAA Tournament and entered the Elite Eight.

Clemson's defense, like it has the entire tournament, shut down Alabama in the opening minutes of Saturday night. The Tigers held the Tide to just 5-of-22 from the field and 1-of-13 from behind the arc to start the game while quickly taking a 13-point lead. Finally, Alabama's shots started falling. The Tide hit three straight 3-pointers and then finished the first half on a 22-6 run. This gave them a three-point lead at halftime.

The only silver lining for Clemson was that Alabama star Mark Sears, who has averaged nearly 25 points per game so far in the tournament, went a brutal 2-of-11 from the field and just 1-of-7 from the three-point line.

Alabama stayed one step ahead of Clemson through the first part of the second half, although it wasn't always pretty. Sears dribbled the ball off his foot at one point, then appeared to get into a little altercation with Oates about it on the sideline after he was taken out of the game, and Aaron Estrada had a really bad double dribble that wasn't successful. Lots of explanation.

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However, every time Clemson came close to cutting the deficit, Stevenson and Alabama responded immediately. Tigers guard Joseph Girard hit back-to-back 3-pointers late in the second half, but Alabama answered with 3s of its own — including another one from Stevenson — to keep up the pace and eventually pull ahead. And it didn't hurt that their shots were finally starting to fall from deep, either. Alabama made 10 of its 15 points from behind the arc in the second half to put the Tigers away and clinch the win by seven points.

Ian Shefflin led Clemson with 18 points and 11 rebounds in the loss. Gerrard finished with 19 points, and PJ Hall added 14 points before committing a foul. They shot just 7-of-24 from the 3-point line as a team.

Sears led Alabama with 23 points, all but five of which came in the second half, and he finished shooting 7 of 14 from the three-point line. Stevenson grabbed three rebounds to go with 19 points off the bench, and Nick Pringle finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds.

The Crimson Tide will now face UConn in the Final Four next weekend in Phoenix. The Huskies, after winning the national championship last year and then touring the Big East this season, beat Illinois 30-0 in an Elite Eight game earlier Saturday at TD Garden in Boston.

Nate Oats finally leads the Crimson Tide to the Final Four

The Crimson Tide have reached the Elite Eight only once before, in 2004 under coach Mark Gottfried. But lately, since Oates' arrival, it has seemed inevitable.

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Oates was hired in 2019 to replace Avery Johnson, and almost immediately turned the program into a true SEC basketball contender. They have won multiple regular season and conference tournament titles, made several runs into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and even managed to pick the top two in the NBA draft.

But thanks to Nick Saban's dominance of the football program, Oates' success has often flown under the radar. He's well aware that he was playing for “the best football program in the country.”

“We need to take men's basketball to the level that a lot of other sports are at,” Oats said Friday. “So, if you can get to the Final Four… and put yourself on that stage, I think we've been able to recruit some top-level players. Players want to play here… We've won a lot, but we've never gotten to a Final Four.”

“So making a Final Four would be very big for the program, and it would show that we are competing with the best programs in the country for the most important thing.”

With that done, now comes the hard part that very few teams over the past couple of years have been able to figure out. Oats will have to find a way to get past top-ranked UConn.

For now, that's next week's problem.