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Alabama rallies past Clemson to make first NCAA tournament Final Four


LOS ANGELES — Alabama head coach Nate Oats said earlier this week that he credits legendary, now-retired Crimson Tide football coach Nick Saban for his mantra of always looking to the next play, the next game in order to not get caught up in the success or failure of the present.

But after an 89-82 win over No. 6 Clemson on Saturday night in the Elite Eight, what’s “next” for Alabama is now uncharted territory — its first appearance in the Final Four.

Down 13 points in the first half, the Tide didn’t flinch. Instead, they stuck to their game plan of shooting their way out of trouble and relied on senior guard Mark Sears — the program’s single-season record-holder in scoring — to score 18 of his game-high 23 points in the second half, including six 3-pointers.

“A lot of people doubted us,” Oats said after receiving the West regional championship trophy. “These guys showed up. They believed.”

All tournament long, the Tigers have made a name for themselves with quick starts. On Saturday, they did it once again, racing out to a 26-13 lead in the first 12 minutes, thanks to 14 points in the paint, while their defense limited Alabama to 1-of-13 from beyond the arc. At one point, the Tide didn’t score for nearly four minutes of play.

For the better part of the first half, one of the nation’s best offenses was stifled, but it wouldn’t be for long. Once a couple of 3-pointers started falling for Alabama, the rhythm returned to its attack, and Clemson’s 13-point lead evaporated after a 22-6 run gave the Tide a three-point lead at halftime.

But Clemson didn’t go away easily. Early in the second half, the Tigers took the lead for a split second before a 3-pointer by Sears gave it back to Alabama, which didn’t relinquish it the rest of the way. Saturday’s game was ultimately decided on 3-point success. After their frigid start from beyond the arc, Alabama didn’t stop shooting and proceeded to make 10 of its next 17 3s. The Tide finished the game shooting over 40 percent from deep.

“It seemed like we hit timely 3 after timely 3,” Oats said.

The Tide stuck to their offensive scheme, even in the face of a team that attempted to beat them with a different style of basketball. Oats’ team scored 26 points in the paint, 15 points from the free throw line and 48 points on 16 3-pointers. In other words, none of their points came in the midrange.

“We couldn’t keep them in front of us. When they start making 3s, you start inching out in space,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “And even them shooting before we could get down and get our zone set a couple times, there’s not many teams that play that way. And so credit to them because it’s modern basketball.”

It wasn’t just Sears who caught fire from deep. After air-balling one of his first 3-point attempts in the first half, forward Jarin Stevenson, encouraged by his teammates and coach, finished with 19 points off the bench, including five 3s.

“He grew up tonight, we don’t win this game without him,” Sears said of Stevenson. “Playing for a coach that gives you the freedom … he wants you to shoot open shots … it’s something you love being around.”

Even when Clemson was forced to play Alabama’s style of game and start shooting more 3s, it wasn’t enough. With just under eight minutes left in the second half, Clemson’s Joseph Girard III was able to make 3s on back-to-back possessions. The only problem? Alabama matched him on the other end with 3s on three consecutive possessions to build a nine-point lead with just over six minutes left.

“They shoot them fast and they make them,” Girard said of Alabama’s shooting. “When they make them it feels like they’ll never miss.”

With the Tigers making only eight of their 25 3-point attempts, the math was in the Tide’s favor, and over the course of 40 minutes that proved to be the deciding factor in punching Alabama’s ticket to the next round.

“A lot of people question can you win big in March shooting all the 3s you shoot?” Oats said. “For all naysayers, is 36 too many? Look, we’re not trying to shoot 50 3s, we’re trying to take the most efficient shots.”

During the tournament, Alabama has had a third-party analytics group with them. Oats said that at halftime, the group relayed to him that on “expected value points” they were up 11 points, giving Oats and the rest of the team the confidence to stay the course. If this style is good enough for teams to win at the NBA level, it’s good enough to also win with it in the college ranks.

It’s not all numbers for Oats, though. He said Saturday night that he keeps an Excel sheet of a practice schedule that also includes a page for inspirational quotes. Most of them, he said, are quotes from Saban that have inspired him long before he became the basketball coach in Tuscaloosa.

In the face of a historic breakthrough for the program, Oats may continue to heed Saban’s advice and look to what’s next. But the Final Four berth is a proper crowning achievement for a coach who has won eight tournament games the past four seasons — one more than the program won over the previous 26.

Extending history will not be easy. What awaits in the Final Four is Alabama’s toughest task yet: a matchup with the tournament’s top overall seed and defending champion, UConn. The Huskies are coached by Dan Hurley, the brother of Bobby Hurley, who is the coach that first gave Oats a job as an assistant at the college level.

For Oats, the full-circle moment is surreal. Wearing the net he had just cut down around his neck, he attempted to reminisce on the fact that he grew up watching “One Shining Moment” on VHS tapes when he was a kid and that, just 11 years ago, he was coaching high school basketball.

“I don’t really know if it’s really hit me yet,” Oats said. “It probably won’t hit me until the Final Four is over.”

Armed with an efficient style of basketball as a proof of concept and plenty of internal belief, Oats and Co. have crafted their own shining moment and are ready to keep surprising the college basketball world. Last year as a No. 1 seed, their dream run was cut short in the Sweet 16 and they learned how quickly a successful regular season can come to an end.

As a 4-seed this year, the Tide have surpassed expectations, and even though a juggernaut stands in their path, they know that the nature of the sport is such that over the course of one game, anything can happen.

“The best team doesn’t always win,” Oats said. “You gotta be hot at the right time.”

Two wins away from the program’s first ever national title, Alabama is hoping their fire can flicker a little longer.

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