Alabama heats up, ousts Clemson to reach Final Four

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Alabama is going to its first Final Four and will face UConn, which is looking to become the first repeat national champion since Florida in 2006 and '07, next Saturday.

LOS ANGELES — All-American Mark Sears shook off a slow start to shoot 7-of-14 from 3-point distance and score 23 points, and No. 4 seed Alabama topped sixth-seeded Clemson 89-82 on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament West Region final to earn its first trip to the Final Four.

The Crimson Tide (25-11) shot their way into the Final Four on the strength of a 10-of-15 second-half performance from beyond the arc. Sears was responsible for six of the makes on seven attempts, the last of which with 1:15 remaining delivered the dagger to Clemson (24-12).

While Clemson fell short of its goal to reach a program-first Final Four, Alabama is headed to the national semifinals for the first time. Alabama will face UConn (35-3) — which is looking to become the first repeat national champion since Florida in 2006 and ’07 — next Saturday in Glendale, Ariz.

Being defended by Chase Hunter, who held Arizona All-American Caleb Love to 0-for-9 shooting from 3-point range on Thursday, Sears started on a similar pace with misses on his first four 3-point tries and first seven field-goal attempts overall.

But the Crimson Tide got 10 of Jarin Stevenson’s 19 points and eight of Rylan Griffen’s 13 in the first half to buoy Alabama until Sears erupted.

He hit his first five 3-point attempts in the second half, smiling and sticking out his tongue with each make on the way to winning the West Regional’s Most Outstanding Player.

“Even though it’s intense, we play the game because we have fun,” Sears said of his reactions. “To be in those moments, you dream as a little kid and just to have fun with it because you remember, even though it’s business, to go out there and still have fun with it.”

Sears’ electric scoring bolstered a strong offensive half for Alabama overall.

After shooting only 13-of-39 (33.3 percent) from the floor in the first half, including 6-of-21 (28.6 percent) from 3-point range, the Crimson Tide made seven of its first eight field-goal attempts to open the second half.

They shot 16-of-23 (69.6 percent) from the floor overall after intermission.

“The quality of play was unreal in the second half. It was what people want to see,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “But 10-of-15 3-pointers by those guys [in the second half] … you just can’t win [when an opponent does that].”

Alabama gained separation thanks in part to a defensive stretch of 4:02 midway through the half in which it did not allow a field goal.

As it had in each of its three previous NCAA Tournament games, Clemson jumped out to an early double-digit-point lead. The Tigers went up 13 points with less than eight minutes remaining in the first half, but an 11-0 Alabama run ignited a 22-6 finish going into the locker rooms.

The Tigers rallied behind the inside-outside duo of Ian Schieffelin, who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds, and Joseph Girard III, who hit five second-half 3-pointers en route to 19 points on the night.

Schieffelin’s play on the interior helped limit Alabama big man and hero of the Crimson Tide’s Sweet 16 win over North Carolina, Grant Nelson, to just eight points in 21 minutes due to foul trouble. However, Clemson’s own post presence — PJ Hall — fouled out with 14 points and 3:25 remaining.

“It still stings a lot right now, probably will for a couple of days,” Hall said of the loss. “I don’t think that it’ll really set in what we’ve accomplished (making the program’s first Elite Eight since 1980) because we had our eyes set on big goals.”