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

Alabama fended off Clemson and grabbed an 89-82 win in their Elite Eight matchup on Saturday night

LOS ANGELES — Clemson’s best NCAA tournament run, thanks to another unlikely source, has come to an end.

Alabama, behind a career night from freshman Jarin Stevenson, pushed ahead and claimed an 89-82 win in their Elite Eight matchup at Arena in Los Angeles on Saturday night. That officially sent head coach Nate Oats and the Crimson Tide into the Final Four for the first time in program history.

Stevenson, after Grant Nelson’s career game that seemingly came out of nowhere in the Sweet 16, put up a career-high 19 points and went 5-of-8 from the 3-point line in the win. He had scored nine total points in the NCAA tournament entering the Elite Eight.

Clemson's defense, like it’s done essentially the entire tournament, locked down Alabama in the early minutes on Saturday night. The Tigers held the Tide to just 5-of-22 from the field and an awful 1-of-13 from behind the arc to start the game while they quickly took a 13-point lead. Finally, though, Alabama’s shots started to fall. The Tide rattled off three straight 3-pointers and then closed the half on a dominant 22-6 run. That gave them a three-point lead at the break.

Clemson’s lone bright side 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 3-point line.

Alabama stayed a step ahead of Clemson through the first chunk of the second half, though it wasn’t always pretty. Sears dribbled the ball off his own foot at one point, and then seemed to have a small spat with Oats about it on the sidelines after he was taken out of the game, and Aaron Estrada had a really bad double dribble that didn’t have much of an explanation.

Yet every time Clemson came close to cutting the deficit, Stevenson and Alabama responded right away. Tigers guard Joseph Girard hit back-to-back 3-pointers late in the second half, but Alabama responded with three straight 3s of its own — including another one from Stevenson — to finally push ahead. It didn’t hurt that their shots finally started falling from deep, either. Alabama went an impressive 10-of-15 from behind the arc in the second half to put the Tigers away and grab the seven-point win.

Girard led Clemson with 19 points, Ian Schieffelin had 18 points and 11 rebounds in the loss and PJ Hall added 14 points before he fouled out. The Tigers shot just 8-of-26 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 3-point line. Stevenson had three rebounds to go with his 19 points off the bench, and Nick Pringle finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds.

The Crimson Tide will now take on UConn in the Final Four next weekend in Phoenix. The Huskies, after winning last year’s national championship and then rolling through the Big East this season, blew out Illinois with a 30-0 run in their Elite Eight matchup earlier on Saturday at TD Garden in Boston.

Nate Oats finally leads Crimson Tide to Final Four

The Crimson Tide have reached the Elite Eight just once before, back in 2004 under coach Mark Gottfried. Yet lately, since Oats' arrival, it’s felt almost inevitable.

Oats was hired in 2019 to replace Avery Johnson, and he turned the program into a true basketball contender in the SEC almost immediately. They’ve won multiple regular season and conference tournament titles, made several runs into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament and even produced a top-two pick in the NBA Draft.

But thanks largely to Nick Saban’s dominance with the football program, Oats’ success has frequently flown under the radar at the school. He’s well aware that he’s been playing in the shadow of “the best football program in the country.”

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

“So making a Final Four would be very big for the program, would show that we’re competing with all of the best programs in the country for the biggest thing.”

With that done, now comes the difficult part that very few teams over the past two 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.