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Mar 29, 2024 9:00 pm

Alabama, Clemson vying for first trip to Final Four

Aaron Estrada

LOS ANGELES — Saturday’s NCAA Tournament West Regional final matchup pitting No. 4 seed Alabama against No. 6 seed Clemson comes with a guarantee to be a landmark moment for either program, as each is vying for its first Final Four spot in school history.

“Alabama and Clemson playing in L.A.,” Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats said on Friday at Crypto.com Arena. “Most people think (they must be) playing in the Rose Bowl.”

The reference to the venerable stadium in nearby Pasadena, Calif., alludes to the success of the two schools’ football teams, which combined to win eight national championships on the gridiron since 2009.

The two have faced off in the national title game three times since the inauguration of the College Football Playoff in 2014 — which is one time more than either basketball program has appeared in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, including Saturday’s contest.

Alabama (24-11) beat top-seeded North Carolina 89-87 on Thursday to reach its first Elite Eight since 2004.

Clemson (24-11) is playing its first Elite Eight game since 1980 after beating No. 2 seed Arizona 77-72 on Thursday.

The regional-final round might be unfamiliar territory for the Crimson Tide and Tigers, but the teams know each other.

Clemson knocked off Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., 85-77 on Nov. 28.

“Nobody wants to have lost to a team twice,” Crimson Tide guard Aaron Estrada said. “So I think that’s just gonna add even more fuel.”

Big man P.J. Hall’s 21 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots paced Clemson in the November meeting, and his 17 points against Arizona were crucial to getting the Tigers to the Elite Eight.

Hall figures to be front-and-center in the rematch, in part because of who he’s facing, Alabama’s Grant Nelson.

After scoring just three points in each of the Crimson Tide’s first two NCAA Tournament wins over College of Charleston and Grand Canyon, Nelson erupted for 24 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks against North Carolina.

Clemson coach Brad Brownell said he does not put too much stock in the early-season result in part because of Nelson’s emergence.

“They’ve just gotten better. Some of it is Grant Nelson looks more comfortable,” Brownell said. “The way he played in the last 10 minutes of the game last night was remarkable.”

Nelson’s late-game flourish included scoring Alabama’s final five points, beginning with a go-ahead three-point play.

“Grant’s performance (on Thursday) was historical,” Estrada said. “Everybody on our team pretty much knew he was capable of that.”

Estrada and Nelson were veteran transfers in the offseason — Estrada from Hofstra, Nelson from North Dakota State. Estrada, who has averaged 13.5 points per game this season, scored 19 points in the Sweet 16 game.

He was one of four Alabama scorers to net at least 18 points in Thursday’s win along with Nelson; Rylan Griffen, who scored 19 points; and Mark Sears, who finished with 18.

All four are averaging double digits in scoring this season. Sears leads the team at 21.4 points per game as the Crimson Tide are No. 1 in the nation with 90.7 points per game.

Clemson, which is averaging 77.2 points per game, is led by Hall’s 18.4 average. Joseph Girard III is second on the team with 15.0 points and Chase Hunter, who scored 18 points on Thursday, is scoring at a 12.9 clip.

–Kyle Kensing, Field Level Media

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