March Madness: Grant Nelson powers Alabama past No. 1 North Carolina to reach first Elite Eight since 2004

LOS ANGELES — North Carolina stalled out late on Thursday night, and Grant Nelson was there to take advantage.

Nelson absolutely dominated down the stretch, and came up with a huge block late, to lead Alabama to a huge 89-87 upset win over top-seeded North Carolina on Thursday night at Arena in Los Angeles. That officially sent the Crimson Tide into their first Elite Eight since 2004.

“We’ve been in one Elite Eight in the history of Alabama basketball,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “This dude showed up tonight in a big way against one of the best bigs in the country.”

The pace in the first half was ridiculously quick. The two teams combined for 100 points and they each shot better than 50% from the field in the first 20 minutes while going on stretches where they just traded bucket after bucket.

But it was the last bit of the half that North Carolina finally pulled out in front. After a Rylan Griffen 3-pointer with about 3:30 left in the half, Alabama went cold. The Crimson Tide managed just one made shot the rest of the way as the Tar Heels closed the half on an 11-2 burst to take an eight-point lead into the break. North Carolina made 10 3-pointers as a team in the first 20 minutes thanks largely to very hot shooting from Cormac Ryan — who made four of his first five attempts from behind the arc.

Naturally, neither team could keep up with that pace. North Carolina missed its first 10 shots of the second half, six of which were taken from behind the arc, and they didn’t hit a field goal until Armando Bacot powered in a layup nearly five minutes into the period. The Tar Heels went 2-of-18 from the field to start the half, and Bacot missed a wide open two-handed dunk that left him flustered on the court, which let Alabama right back in it.

The Crimson Tide seemed poised to run away with the win late, too, after Nelson ripped off a solo 7-0 run capped with a huge 3-pointer that sent Hubert Davis rushing to call a timeout. But North Carolina responded with an 8-0 run of its own to jump back out in front slightly, before Nelson powered through an and-1 layup to take a two-point lead right back.

North Carolina tried to respond, but then Nelson completely stuffed RJ Davis at the rim.

That led to another turnover and eventually pushed the Crimson Tide to the two-point win and their second ever Elite Eight appearance.

Nelson’s outing was huge for Alabama, not only because he accounted for 12 of their last 14 points in the win, but because of how poorly he played in the Crimson Tide’s first two tournament games. Nelson scored just three points in each of the first two rounds and shot a combined 1-of-7 from the field. He finished with 24 points and shot 6-of-9 from the field against the Tar Heels.

“[I had] just all the confidence in the world,” Nelson said. “These guys coming up to me, telling me great things.I didn’t start this tournament with the best two games. These guys are saying, ‘Go out there, go get a bucket, really.’ That gives me a lot of confidence and I give them a lot of credit.”

Aaron Estrada added 19 points for the Crimson Tide in the win, and Griffen finished with 19 points after shooting 5-of-8 from behind the arc. Sears added 18 points.

“I was very proud of him,” Sears said of Nelson. “Like he said, he was struggling first two games. To see him carry us to get this win, it was very amazing because at the end of the day all I care about is winning. I don’t care about points or all the accolades. At this time of the season, it’s all about winning.”

Bacot led North Carolina with 19 points and 12 rebounds in the loss, and Ryan finished with 17 points. Davis finished with 16 points and seven assists, though he went 0-of-9 from the 3-point line.

Alabama will now take on Clemson in the Elite Eight on Saturday. The Tigers shut down Caleb Love and upset No. 2 Arizona in their Sweet 16 game earlier on Thursday night, which sent them into the Elite Eight for the first time since 1980.

“We’ve been working for this all season,” Nelson said. “But this wasn’t our end goal. It’s good we got here. It’s something at the school, we haven’t done, or one other time.

“It’s great. We’re going to celebrate it a little bit and then move on, next game.”

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