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Clemson reaches the Elite Eight for the first time since 1980, beating Arizona 77-72

LOS ANGELES (AP) — When Clemson has encountered rough stretches this season, coach Brad Brownell has told his team, “We’re built for this, we can handle this.”

In their biggest game of the season Thursday night, the Tigers proved their coach correct.

Chase Hunter scored 18 points and Clemson advanced to the Elite Eight for the second time in school history, beating Arizona 77-72 in a West Region semifinal on Thursday night.

The sixth-seeded Tigers (24-11) led most of the game, but didn’t put it away until Hunter converted a three-point play with 25.7 seconds remaining.

“We have confidence in our team,” said Brownell, who’s in the Elite Eight for the first time in a 22-year coaching career that includes one previous Sweet 16 appearance in 14 seasons with the Tigers. “I’ve got an older team. These guys have seen a lot, done a lot and experienced success. And so just really happy that they were able to withstand it, and we executed some things really well down the stretch.”

PJ Hall added 17 points for Clemson, which will face No. 4 seed Alabama on Saturday with each program seeking to make its first Final Four. The Crimson Tide beat top-seeded North Carolina 89-87.

Clemson — which wasn’t in the March Madness field the previous two years — last reached a regional final in 1980, when there were 48 teams in the NCAA Tournament.

Jaden Bradley scored 18 points, Oumar Ballo had 15 and Caleb Love 13 for second-seeded Arizona (27-9), which had a horrific shooting night, going 5 of 28 (17.9%) from 3-point range.

Bradley went 2 of 4 from 3-point range, but no one else made more than one 3. Love missed all nine of his attempts beyond the arc.

“I feel like some of them were good looks and shots we’ve made all season, and today they just didn’t go in,” said coach Tommy Lloyd, who was ousted in the Sweet 16 for the second time in his three seasons at Arizona. “To have that sort of shooting night and get yourself in the game where you have a position to win, and I think it’s incredible. And it just shows the resiliency and toughness of these guys.”

The Tigers have held all three of their NCAA opponents to worse than 40% shooting. It was the second time they held a team under 20% from the perimeter; New Mexico went 3 for 23 in the first round.

“Limiting rhythm 3s and good open 3s was a huge key to the game,” Hall said.

After Bradley’s 3-pointer got Arizona within 72-70, Hunter put it out of reach when he drove for a layup while being fouled by Bradley. Hunter’s free throw made it a five-point game.

“I just wanted to make a play,” Hunter said. “At the end of the day, I wanted to get to the basket, wanted to get an and-one, wanted to make something happen, and that’s what I did.”

The Wildcats had the edge in the paint and in transition, with all of their two-point field goals coming on layups or dunks, but the Tigers were 29 of 59 from the field (49.2%).

Ian Schieffelin finished with 14 points and Hunter’s brother, Dillon, made a layup for the final margin, his only basket of the game. Joseph Girard III, Clemson’s second-leading scorer, was held to four points.

Clemson led 39-31 at halftime. The Tigers were still up by eight two minutes into the second half before the Wildcats went on a quick 8-0 run. Love’s three-point play tied it at 43-all with 16:43 remaining.

Two minutes later, a driving layup by Love gave Arizona its only lead, 46-45. But the Wildcats’ edge lasted only 20 seconds as Jack Clark hit a 3-pointer to put Clemson back on top.

It was tied at 56-all midway through the second half before Clemson responded with a 9-2 run, including a layup by Hall and a 3-pointer by Schieffelin.

“We harp on toughness. In the beginning we weren’t so tough, but I feel at the end we did a great job battling and trying to get stops,” Bradley said. “But Clemson did a great job with their plays and their shot-making, and we couldn’t really get over the hump.”

Clemson scored the first four points and jumped out to a 16-6 lead less than nine minutes in on RJ Godfrey’s turnaround jumper. The Tigers started 7 of 13 from the field while Arizona was 2 of 13.

Hall’s layup gave Clemson a 29-16 advantage — its largest lead of the game — with 6:43 remaining in the first half.

HIGHLIGHT REEL

Ballo supplied one of Arizona’s rare highlights late in the first half with a one-handed dunk on an alley-oop. Bradley made a great pass from the corner in traffic before Ballo slammed it with his right hand to bring the Wildcats within 37-31 with 56 seconds remaining. Chase Hunter tried to jump up and deflect Bradley’s pass, but to no avail.

BIG PICTURE

Clemson: The Tigers were also a sixth seed in the West Region the last time they made the Elite Eight in 1980. Clemson lost to eventual national runner-up UCLA 85-74 in the regional final.

Arizona: The Wildcats have lost to a team seeded at least four spots below them in each of their last six NCAA Tournament appearances. That’s the longest such streak by any team since seeding began in 1979, according to OptaSTATS.

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

By JOE REEDY
AP Sports Writer

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