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What we learned: Upsets by Alabama, Clemson while UConn keeps dominating

It was a bad, bad Sweet 16 for the favorites. Unless of course your name is UConn.

In the West Region, Alabama stayed with No. 1 seed North Carolina all night long, then outscored the Tar Heels 7-2 in the final 1:32. The result was an 89-87 win for the No. 4 seed Crimson Tide. Grant Nelson scored 24 for Alabama, with 19 coming in the second half alone. His old-fashioned 3-point play put the Tide ahead in the final minute. Nelson then sealed the victory with two free throws Nat Oats’ team made its share of 3s as usual, going 11-of-26 behind the arc. Perhaps more surprising were the 15 offensive rebounds Alabama pulled down against UNC in the high-scoring affair.

“These guys are bringing their competitive side out at the right time,” Oats said. “You want to be peaking in March and we’re peaking in March.”

The Tide are going to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2004. They reached the Sweet 16 last year and in 2021. They will face the other team that orchestrated an upset earlier in the evening, No. 6 seed Clemson, which toppled No. 2 seed Arizona.

In the much less dramatic East region, Illinois overcame the stifling defense of Iowa State and will face UConn on Saturday.

Here, what the first set of regional semifinal games told us about the race for the national championship.

Was that the game of the tournament? Let’s all take a deep breath after that one. I guess this is what happens when you pit two of the most explosive offenses in the country against each other. A combined 176 points, one team shooting over 40% from 3, the other holding a 10-point lead only to give it up and a ridiculous pace of play that made it seem more like a track meet than a basketball game. In a game that went down to the wire, every possession felt like it weighed a ton of bricks. Ultimately, senior Grant Nelson not only led all scorers with 24 points, he added 12 rebounds and five crucial blocks to lead Alabama to a result that was an upset in name only.

What the win means for Alabama: The Tide just took out the top seed in the West and are back in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2004, only the second time in school history. The historic win for Nate Oats’ team comes during a 23-win season in which it finished second in the SEC. Last year may have included more wins (31) and a better shot at going deeper in the tournament, but this year’s team has proved it has the experience and offensive firepower to compete with anyone.

“This guy showed up tonight against one of the best bigs in the country,” Oats said of Nelson’s performance postgame. “I think people question whether [we’re] soft or what not, Grant showed we’re not. We can play with the big boys.”

What the loss means for North Carolina: A year after becoming the first preseason No. 1 team to miss the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels appeared primed for a deep tournament run, much like the one that led to the championship game two years ago. Yet, despite the surplus of talent and boasting the top seed in the West, Hubert Davis’ team couldn’t hold on to a lead against an Alabama team that matched them shot for shot Thursday night. — Paolo Uggetti

Can UConn’s NCAA tournament potentially be more dominant than last season?
UConn was unstoppable in last year’s NCAA tournament. The Huskies won their six games by an average of 20.0 points, the fourth-largest average since the tournament expanded in 1985. So far this year, they’ve been even better. They’ve won their three games by an average of 28.7 points. They’ve trailed for 28 seconds. They’ve led by double digits in the second half for 58:27 of a possible 60 minutes. San Diego State played about as well as it could for the opening stretch of the game and found itself down by 11 within nine minutes. The scariest part for future opponents is it seems like UConn has been able to keep something in the tank, rarely needing to put its foot on the gas down the stretch in games.

What the win means for UConn: A positive sign for the Huskies on Thursday night was the play of Hassan Diarra. The reserve guard came off the bench and provided a real lift in the second half, scoring 10 points and distributing four assists — putting the game out of reach for San Diego State shortly after halftime. Huskies center Donovan Clingan struggled against the Aztecs’ Jaedon LeDee in the first half but became more comfortable as the game went on and still was a nuisance defensively. UConn forward Alex Karaban hit a couple early shots but then struggled to connect the rest of the game. And while those might seem like potential negatives, Dan Hurley must be thrilled that his team beat a good San Diego State team by 30 without playing its best.

What the loss means for San Diego State: For the second season in a row, San Diego State’s season ends against UConn. The Aztecs actually went shot for shot with the Huskies early but simply didn’t have enough firepower offensively. Last season at this point in the tournament, when SDSU beat overall 1-seed Alabama in the Sweet 16, it had one of the most dominant defenses in the country — and was getting consistent scoring production from its perimeter players. The defense wasn’t quite as good this season, the offensive wasn’t nearly as good and LeDee couldn’t do it all himself. But national runners-up followed by a Sweet 16 run? That’s an impressive two-year run for Brian Dutcher and the Aztecs. — Jeff Borzello

Can Illinois make UConn sweat? The Huskies have barely been pushed so far this tournament, leading by double digits for basically the entire second half in all three games. But Illinois showed a level of toughness, especially defensively, that could go a long way, especially when combined with the Illini’s elite offense. Since UConn became fully healthy in January, the only team to beat it was Creighton, which scored 85 points and made 14 3s. You have to score points to beat the Huskies. Illinois can do that. Brad Underwood has the nation’s No. 2 offense at KenPom and one of the nation’s most talented offensive players in Terrence Shannon Jr. He also has plenty of size on the perimeter, a bonafide No. 2 scorer in Marcus Domask and a big man in Coleman Hawkins who can force Donovan Clingan away from the rim. UConn is still the favorite, but Illinois might be able to push the defending national champs like no one else has in two NCAA tournaments.

What the win means for Illinois: Shannon’s scoring ability was once again on display Thursday, and he’s the type of player who can carry a team to a title. He was averaging 30.5 points in his past six games before facing Iowa State, and despite playing the nation’s No. 1 defense was able to put up 29 points. He had to shoulder the load more than usual, as Marcus Domask struggled to make shots, so he’ll need more help from his supporting cast against the Huskies.

What the loss means for Iowa State: What T.J. Otzelberger has done since arriving in Ames is nothing short of remarkable. The Cyclones have won 70 games in his three seasons, gone to three NCAA tournaments, advanced to two Sweet 16s and won a Big 12 conference tournament title. They’ve had a top-10 defense all three seasons, including the nation’s No. 1 unit this campaign. With that sort of system and culture, don’t expect things to change moving forward. There are a few seniors on the team — Tre King, Robert Jones, Hason Ward — but Otzelberger’s bringing in a pair of four-star freshmen and already landed Charlotte transfer Dishon Jackson. If the past couple seasons are any indication, the Cyclones will once again likely be picked too low in the preseason and exceed expectations. — Jeff Borzello

Is Ian Schiefflin Clemson’s best-kept secret?
With his curly hair contained by an old-school headband, the 6-foot-8 junior from Georgia might appear slightly unassuming. But Thursday night against an Arizona team stocked with talent, Schiefflin became one of the Tigers’ most productive players and looked like one of the best players on the floor. Schiefflin, who is averaging 9.8 points and 9.5 rebounds this season, scored 14 points and added 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and a block. Whether or not the Wildcats prepared for Schiefflin playing as big of a role as he did, they couldn’t stop him in key moments. After draining one 3-pointer, the threat of Schiefflin shooting from deep tilted the balance of Arizona’s half-court defense, opening up lanes for its two best players — Chase Hunter (18 points) and PJ Hall (17 points) — to make key plays down the stretch.

Schiefflin, who wore Kobe Bryant shoes to play in the arena Bryant starred in for many years, was asked postgame whether he believed he was channeling a Mamba mentality with his play, which included a key 3 that banked in. Head coach Brad Brownell interjected with a laugh.

“You’re playing well,” he said. “But don’t compare yourself to Kobe Bryant, OK?”

What the win means for Clemson: The Tigers continue to defy expectations, and this time, they did it against one of the most talented teams in the nation in front of an Arizona-heavy crowd. Brownell’s squad not only raced out to a 13-point lead against the 2-seed, forcing the Wildcats into eight first-half turnovers and an abysmal shooting performance (37.3% from the field, 17.9% from 3), but it also sustained the inevitable Arizona run that tied the game in the second half and still emerged victorious. When Arizona began making shots, Clemson stuck to its game plan, and soon enough, the Wildcats reverted to taking tough shots they couldn’t make. On offense, the Tigers weren’t scorching hot by any means, but when the game got close late, they did what Arizona could not: attack the basket instead of settling for jumpers. The strategy paid off, and now the Tigers are headed to their first Elite Eight since 1980.

“Today was our day,” Brownell said. “We made enough plays to win.”

What the loss means for Arizona: One of the best offenses in the nation failed to show up in L.A. on Thursday, Since 2015, the Wildcats have not been ranked lower than a 6-seed and have been a 2-seed three times. And yet 2015 is the last time they made it to the Elite Eight. Since Tommy Lloyd’s hire in 2021, Arizona has now lost to a 5-seed in the Sweet 16, a 15-seed in the opening round and now a 6-seed in the Sweet 16. Given the talent the Wildcats have accrued over the past few years, the results have not been there, and this latest tournament exit won’t help their résumé. — Paolo Uggetti

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