Alabama holds off top-seeded North Carolina 89-87 to reach Elite Eight for 2nd time ever

North Carolina guard RJ Davis (4) shoots past Alabama guard Rylan Griffen (3) during the first half of a Sweet 16 college basketball game in the NCAA tournament Thursday, March 28, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

North Carolina guard RJ Davis (4) shoots past Alabama guard Rylan Griffen (3) during the first half of a Sweet 16 college basketball game in the NCAA tournament Thursday, March 28, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Alabama’s mantra for this NCAA Tournament is next — as in the next play, next game, next everything. What’s next for the Crimson Tide is the second Elite Eight in school history.

Grant Nelson converted a go-ahead three-point play with 38 seconds remaining, and Alabama became the first team in this year’s tournament to oust a No. 1 seed, beating North Carolina 89-87 on Thursday night.

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

Nelson finished with a season-high 24 points, 19 in the second half, and he blocked RJ Davis’ attempt at a tying layup after giving Alabama the lead. He had 12 rebounds and five blocks.

“I thought I had an advantage on Nelson and he was able to swat it,” Davis said.

Rylan Griffen added 19 points, tying his career high with five 3-pointers, and Aaron Estrada also scored 19 for the fourth-seeded Crimson Tide (24-11).

The Tide face sixth-seeded Clemson on Saturday for a berth in the Final Four. The Tigers defeated second-seeded Arizona 77-72 in the first semifinal at Crypto.com Arena.

“We’ve been working for this all season but this isn’t our end goal,” said Nelson, a 6-foot-11 senior who played at North Dakota State his first three years.

Mark Sears, Alabama’s leading scorer this season, finished with 18 points after making just two field goals in the second half when Nelson dominated.

“I was very proud of him,” Sears said. “He was struggling the first two games. To see him carry us, it was very amazing.”

After Nelson blocked Davis’ shot with 25 seconds left, Davis furiously dribbled around before missing a layup and the Tar Heels got called for a shot-clock violation with 8 seconds left. They were forced to foul, sending Nelson to the line. He calmly made both for an 89-85 lead.

Armando Bacot scored inside with 1 second left, leaving North Carolina trailing 89-87. The Tar Heels fouled Nelson again with 0.9 seconds left. He missed both and time expired on the blueblood Tar Heels, who own six national championships.

“I’m definitely hurt. I think we all are a little shocked,” Bacot said. “Felt like we hand a chance to win the national championship this year.”

Bacot finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds in his final game for UNC (29-8). Cormac Ryan had 17 points and made five 3-pointers and Davis had 16 points. Davis was 4 of 20 from the floor and missed all nine of his 3-point attempts.

“I just wasn’t good enough, missed a lot of easy shots that I normally make,” Davis said, his voice trailing off as he lowered his head and rubbed his eyes.

At times, UNC coach Hubert Davis looked like he was still playing for his alma mater, where he starred from 1988-92 under Hall of Famer Dean Smith. Davis dashed up and down the sideline in his white sneakers, gesturing and yelling and taking his glasses on and off as he lived each play through his team.

“We had good looks that we can make that we just missed,” Davis said. “Sometimes your shots just don’t go in and stinks when it doesn’t. Just came at a really wrong time.”

Alabama trailed 54-46 at halftime. Nelson and Sam Walters combined to score nine of Alabama’s first 13 points to take a 59-57 lead. The Tar Heels struggled early when big man Bacot picked up his third foul five minutes in, but they tied it at 59-all on a basket by Harrison Ingram.

Nelson, Estrada and Griffen teamed to score 21 of Alabama’s next 23 points that produced an 82-77 lead. Nelson ran off seven in a row, capped by a 3-pointer.

Carolina scored eight in a row, including six straight by Davis, to take its last lead, 85-82.

The Tar Heels opened the game on a 19-9 run for their largest lead of a half in which there were eight ties and seven lead changes.

Sears went on a tear, scoring nine points — hitting a 3-pointer and turning to blow a kiss to the crowd — to help the Tide lead 39-34.

North Carolina regained control with a 20-7 spurt to end the half ahead 54-46. Ryan and Ingram had two 3-pointers each and Bacot dunked, slithered around Mohamed Wague for a layup and scored off his own steal.

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The Tide made their only other Elite Eight appearance in 2004 under coach Mark Gottfried, losing to UConn. Alabama, best known for its football program, has never made the Final Four.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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