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

LOS ANGELES — North Carolina was stalling late Thursday night, with Grant Nelson taking advantage.

Nelson was completely dominant to lead Alabama to an 89-87 victory over top-ranked North Carolina on Thursday night at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles. That officially sent the Crimson Tide into the Elite Eight in 2004.

“We were in an Elite Eight in Alabama basketball history,” Alabama coach Nate Oates said. “This dude showed up big tonight against one of the best big men in the country.”

The pace in the first half was ridiculous. Both teams combined for 100 points and each shot better than 50% from the field in the first 20 minutes.

But it wasn't until the last bit of the half that North Carolina finally pulled ahead. After a Rylan Griffen 3-pointer with about 3:30 left in the half, Alabama went cold. The Crimson Tide managed just one shot to close the half with an 11-2 burst by the Tar Heels to take an eight-point lead into halftime. North Carolina made a team-high 10 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes, thanks in large part to the hot shooting of Cormac Ryan — who made four of his first five attempts from behind the arc.

Naturally, neither team could keep up with that momentum. North Carolina missed its first 10 shots of the second half, six of them from behind the arc, and didn't make a field goal until Armando Bagot made a layup nearly five minutes into the period. The Tar Heels started the half 2-for-18 from the field, and Bagot missed a wide-open two-handed dunk that sent him scrambling down the court, allowing Alabama back in.

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After Nelson ripped off a solo 7-0 run with a huge 3-pointer, the Crimson Tide looked poised to run away with a late win. But North Carolina responded with an 8-0 run of its own, pulling back just short, before Nelson took a two-point lead with an and-1 layup.

North Carolina tried to answer, but Nelson absolutely stuffed RJ Davis at the rim.

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

Nelson's outing was huge for Alabama, as he accounted for 12 of his last 14 points in the win. Nelson scored just three points in each of the first two rounds and went 1-for-7 from the field. He finished with 24 points and shot 6-of-9 from the field against the Tar Heels.

“[I had] All the hope in the world,” Nelson said. “These guys come up to me and tell me great things. I didn't start this tournament with the best two games. These people say, 'Go out there, 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 5-of-8 from behind the arc for 19 points. Sears added 18 points.

“I was really proud of him,” Sears said of Nelson. “As he said, he struggled in the first two games. It was amazing to see him take us to this win because at the end of the day I care about winning. I don't care about points or all accolades. At this point in the season, it's all about winning.

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

Alabama now faces Clemson in the Elite Eight on Saturday. The Tigers shut out Caleb Love in Thursday night's Sweet 16 game and then beat No. 2 upset Arizona, which sent them to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1980.

“We've been working on it all season,” Nelson said. “But it's not our ultimate goal. It's good that we're here. It's something at school, something we don't do, or another time.

“That's a big thing. We're going to celebrate that a little bit and then move on to the next game.

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