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Alabama shocks North Carolina, more Sweet 16 action today; Opening Day takeaways

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8️⃣ Good morning to everyone but especially …

THE TEAMS ADVANCING TO THE ELITE EIGHT

One of the greatest aspects of March Madness is that heroes come from anywhere. And on Thursday, one came from Devils Lake, North Dakota, (population 7,000-ish) and did not wilt under the bright lights in Los Angeles as millions watching from around the world.

Grant Nelson delivered the game of his life when (4) Alabama needed it most, scoring 24 points (and 19 in the second half) in a 89-87 win over (1) North Carolina.

  • It wasn’t just the points. Nelson had 12 rebounds and five blocks — including three in the final 1:40 of the game. He’s the first player with 20 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocks in an NCAA Tournament game since Channing Frye in 2005.
  • But it also was the points, and especially how they came: 10 points in the final five minutes, with a personal 7-0 run and, with under a minute left, an and-one to give the Crimson Tide the lead for good.
  • All this from a guy who scored six points combined over his first two tournament games.

Nelson went from relative unknown to hot commodity last offseason when he entered the transfer portal out of North Dakota State and highlights of a 6’11” guy who could handle, shoot and dunk emerged. He now joins the long list of March heroes, writes Cameron Salerno.

Alabama is into its first regional final since 2004, and the Crimson Tide will face a program that had an even longer wait: (6) Clemson is into the Elite Eight for the first time since 1980 after a 77-72 win over (2) Arizona. Chase Hunter scored a team-high 18 points, and his brother, Dillon Hunter, sealed the game late. Cameron spoke to both afterward.

In the East regional, if you thought (1) UConn would finally be challenged … you’re still waiting. The No. 1 overall seed overwhelmed (5) San Diego State, 82-52, in a rematch of last year’s title game. The Huskies are the first reigning champion to reach the Elite Eight since Florida in 2007, who went on to defend said title. UConn is favored to do the same.

But can (3) Illinois change that? That’s the question Matt Norlander tried to answer after the Illini held off (2) Iowa State, 72-69. Terrence Shannon Jr. continued his rampage through March with 29 points. His 246 points this month are the most in a single March since Kemba Walker (293) and Jimmer Fredette (275) in 2011.

Here are our takeaways.

😃 Honorable mentions

😟 And not such a good morning for …

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THE ARIZONA WILDCATS AND THE NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS

Unfortunately, this is what Arizona does.

  • Since 2016, the Wildcats have made the NCAA Tournament six times — and all six times, they have lost to a team at least four seeds worse than they were.
  • Arizona has been a top-two seed in three straight tournaments and failed to make a single Elite Eight. Only Kansas (2013-15) and … Arizona again (1989-91) have done that before.
  • Pac-12 Player of the Year Caleb Love scored 13 points on abysmal 5-for-18 shooting, including nine misses on nine shots from 3. The shot selection was puzzling and erratic. His 61-for-169 career shooting (36.1%) in 10 NCAA Tournament games is the third-worst of any player with a minimum of 150 attempts.

It wasn’t just Love, though. The Wildcats connected on just five of 28 from 3 (18%) and 13 for 26 on layups. They turned 17 offensive rebounds into just 15 second-chance points. They had too many defensive breakdowns to count.

A few hours later on the very same court, the No. 1 seed in the West regional said farewell to its season too. And, ironically, another conference player of the year struggled. RJ Davis — who shared the UNC backcourt with Love for three years — shot just four for 20, including nine misses on nine shots from 3, just like Love. Again, it’s not all on him. Armando Bacot blew a crucial wide-open dunk, and North Carolina as a team went just 12 of 28 (43%) on layups. The Tar Heels’ improved defense allowed its second-most points this season.

Missed opportunities, bad guard play and bad defense can end your season in the blink of an eye. Arizona and North Carolina are the latest to find out.

😕 Not so honorable mentions

🏀 NCAA Men’s Tournament: Previewing second half of Sweet 16

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Four Sweet 16 games in the books, four to go. Here’s the schedule:

  • (11) NC State vs. (2) Marquette, 7:09 p.m. on CBS
  • (5) Gonzaga vs. (1) Purdue, 7:39 p.m. on TBS/truTV
  • (4) Duke vs. (1) Houston, 30 min. after NC State-Marquette ends
  • (3) Creighton vs. (2) Tennessee, 30 min. after Gonzaga-Purdue ends

NC State is the lone double-digit seed, and while “ACC Tournament champion” may not fit the traditional Cinderella description, a team that was 17-14 less than three weeks ago and nowhere near the bubble going 7-0 since is indeed a Cinderella, no matter the conference. Kyle Boone explains how Kevin Keatts saved his job.

Things were never quite that dire for Gonzaga, but Mark Few‘s bunch also needed a late surge. The Bulldogs were on the bubble as recently as early February. But now they’re rolling, and David Cobb looked at why.

Few is the only coach left in the Midwest regional who has made a Final Four. The other three — Matt Painter, Greg McDermott and Rick Barnes — are looking for a long-awaited breakthrough in Detroit this weekend, David notes.

Here are our picks for tonight.

🏀 NCAA Women’s Tournament: Ranking, predicting Sweet 16 games

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The women’s Sweet 16 starts today with four games:

  • (3) Oregon State vs. (2) Notre Dame (preview)
  • (4) Indiana vs. (1) South Carolina (preview)
  • (3) NC State vs. (2) Stanford (preview)
  • (4) Gonzaga vs. (1) Texas (preview)

The best game of the day — and third-best of the Sweet 16 — according to Isabel Gonzalez’s rankings is …

  • Gonzalez:(3) NC State vs. (2) Stanford — Stanford missed the Sweet 16 last season, but the West Coast powerhouse is back in it thanks to Kiki Iriafen‘s career night against Iowa State. … The Wolfpack also played a close game in the Round of 32. They almost blew a 20-point lead against Tennessee, but they held on to earn their third Sweet 16 berth in four years. … All five starters are averaging double figures.”

⚾ Opening Day winners, losers: Strong first impressions

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When the Yankees acquired Juan Soto this offseason, they knew they were getting a generational bat. On Opening Day, Soto showed he can play some defense, too. The star right fielder threw out Mauricio Dubón at the plate in the ninth inning which helped to preserve the Yankees’ 5-4 win over the Astros. He also started the Yankees’ rally from a 4-0 deficit with an RBI single and walked twice. Pretty good!

He wasn’t the only player making a strong first impression on his new team. A pitcher making his team debut landed among the “winners” of R.J. Anderson’s Opening Day winners and losers.

  • Anderson:Winners: Orioles — New ace Corbin Burnes surrendered one run on one hit over six innings of work, all the while striking out 11 batters and walking none. Every starting position player except one recorded a hit … Dodgers’ superteam status — The Dodgers’ MVP Three — that is, Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani, and Freddie Freeman — … combined to record six hits and four RBI in a win against the Cardinals. That included an Ohtani double and home runs from Betts and Freeman.”

📺 What we’re watching this weekend

Friday

🏀 (3) Oregon State vs. (2) Notre Dame (W), 2:30 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 (4) Indiana vs. (1) South Carolina (W), 5 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Lakers at Pacers, 7 p.m. on NBA TV
🏀 (11) NC State vs. (2) Marquette (M), 7:09 p.m. on CBS
🏀 (3) NC State vs. (2) Stanford (W), 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 (5) Gonzaga vs. (1) Purdue (M), 7:39 p.m. on TBS/truTV
🏀 (4) Gonzaga vs. (1) Texas (W), 10 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Mavericks at Kings, 10 p.m. on NBA TV
🏀 (4) Duke vs. (1) Houston (M), 30 min. after NC State-Marquette ends
🏀 (3) Creighton vs. (2) Tennessee (M), 30 min. after Gonzaga-Purdue ends

Saturday

🏀 (3) LSU vs. (2) UCLA (W), 1 p.m. on ABC
🏀 (5) Colorado vs. (1) Iowa (W), 3:30 p.m. on ABC
Braves at Phillies, 4:05 p.m. on FS1
🏀 (5) Baylor vs. (1) USC (W), 5:30 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Celtics at Pelicans, 5 p.m. on NBA TV
🏀 (3) Illinois vs. (1) UConn (M), 6:09 p.m. on TBS/truTV
Yankees at Astros OR Giants at Padres, 7:15 p.m. on Fox
🏀 Bucks at Hawks, 7:30 p.m. on NBA TV
🏀 (7) Duke vs. (3) UConn (W), 8 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 (6) Clemson vs. (4) Alabama (M), 8:39 p.m. on TBS/truTV

Sunday

🏀 We’ll be watching the men’s (here) and women’s (here) Elite Eight.
🏀 Cavaliers at Nuggets, 3:30 p.m. on NBA TV
🏒 Ducks at Canucks, 3:30 p.m. on TNT
🏀 Warriors at Spurs, 7 p.m. on NBA TV
Cardinals at Dodgers, 7 p.m. on ESPN

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