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Alabama, Grant Nelson clamp down, stop No. 1 seed North Carolina when it mattered most to make Elite Eight

LOS ANGELES — Alabama’s 345th-ranked scoring defense needed one stop to record a breakthrough win for the program. With North Carolina trailing by two points with 25 seconds remaining, RJ Davis went right, and just like he had been all night, Crimson Tide star Grant Nelson was there to meet him. That UNC offensive possession resulted in a shot clock violation, and Nelson hit two free throws seconds later and No. 4 seed Alabama sealed an 89-87 upset victory vs. No. 1 seed North Carolina in a West Regional Semifinal on Thursday.

Nelson, a transfer in his first season with the Crimson Tide, is one game away from history as Alabama clinched its second trip to the Elite Eight and will face No. 6 seed Clemson on Saturday as both schools try to make the Final Four for the first time.

“It’s a weight lifted off your shoulders,” Nelson told CBS Sports. “We locked in for the end. We did what we had to do to win. … We proved a lot of people wrong, especially with this game. People said we couldn’t guard, but it showed a little bit against GCU and Charleston, but people still doubted a little bit. Then coming here and beating UNC, I think that takes it to another level. The better we can get on defense, the farther (we can go).”

Nelson finished with 24 points, 12 rebounds, and five blocks and became the first player with at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, and four blocks in a Sweet 16 game or later since UCLA’s Kevin Love in 2008. He is the first SEC player to record those numbers since Florida’s Joakim Noah did it in 2006 en route to a national championship.

Nelson’s All-American teammate, Mark Sears, summed up his outing perfectly.

“His performance was legendary,” Sears said. “He showed up big time when we needed him and he won us this game.”

Nelson was a late addition to the Crimson Tide roster via the transfer portal. Nelson committed to the school days after former Alabama stars Brandon Miller and Noah Clowney left the program via the 2023 NBA Draft.  The former North Dakota State star put up big numbers in the Summit League and transferred to Alabama to play under coach Nate Oats because of his offensive philosophy.

“I knew he was a great coach,” Nelson said. “He runs the best offense in college basketball. That was a huge part (of why I committed). Coming from the NBA, player development and being able to teach me a lot about NBA terminology, that was a huge part. Getting this team together, a bunch of transfers, and then just helping us get to where we are and continue to grow.”

Alabama is known this season for its offense. The Crimson Tide lead the nation in scoring (90.7 ppg) and average 14.5 seconds per possession, the third-fastest in the country according to KenPom.com. Alabama has made the third-most 3-pointers in the country and is on pace to finish as the highest-scoring team from the SEC since Kentucky’s national title team in 1995-96.

But it was the Crimson Tide’s defense that showed up when it mattered. After North Carolina went 10 of 16 from distance in the first half, Alabama held them to 2 of 16 shooting in the final 20 minutes of play. Davis finished 0 of 9 from beyond the arc.

“Our guys showed some character,” Oats said. “They’ve been showing some character these last three games. We’ve been questioned all year on defense, probably rightfully so, but our defense showed up, particularly in the second half. We had a game plan.”

That game plan worked. It’s why Alabama is one win away from making program history — again. The Crimson Tide will have to avenge an 85-77 home loss to Clemson during the ACC/SEC Challenge to get to Glendale, Arizona, less than a year after losing to San Diego State in the Sweet 16 as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.

“We’re one game away,” Oats said. “And it’s not easy. I told these guys at halftime it’s not easy to win these games to get to an Elite Eight. There’s only been one in Alabama. They’ve had all kinds of pros and all kinds of really good teams. Wimp Sanderson was one of the better coaches in his era in the country. They were never able to make it. (Former Alabama coach Mark) Gottfried made it to the Elite Eight when (Antoine) Pettway was on the team. And we heard about it forever because Pettway has got the only Elite Eight and now we have two. We’re going to try to get the only Final Four. … I thought we had a spot-on game plan. We’ve got to do the same thing for Clemson. We won’t be getting a lot of sleep tonight.”

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