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Clemson slows down Arizona to reach first Elite Eight since 1980

LOS ANGELES — The young men and women in white hats blew their horns loudly as the orange crowd next to them, transplanted across the country and outnumbered all night, shouted “ACC” until let his limbs be hoarse.

Chase Hunter, PJ Hall and Ian Schieffelin, whose last name inspired the school band to don culinary headgear, ran onto the field to join the joyful scene after No. 1 seed Clemson 6 in the West Region, earned a 77-72 victory over No. 6. No. 2 seed Arizona in a Sweet 16 matchup at Crypto.com Arena on Thursday night. While the opening weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament produced a mountain of chalk, the Tigers claimed a rare upset to secure their first trip to the Elite Eight since 1980, the good old days by Larry Nance.

Clemson, too accomplished to wear Cinderella’s slipper, was nonetheless the lowest seed to advance to this year’s Sweet 16, alongside South Region No. 11 seed North Carolina State. . The Tigers will draw No. 4 seed Alabama in the West Region final on Saturday for a chance to reach their first Final Four.

Arizona’s fall was no fluke: Clemson took command early with an energetic, swarming defense, led almost wire-to-wire and closed out the victory with a dazzling series of offensive plays in the final minutes , including a three-point basket. from Schieffelin, a brilliantly executed inside play that found Hall for a dunk and a tough layup from Hunter, who earned a free throw for his efforts.

“It was a big game for our guys,” Tigers coach Brad Brownell said. “We are built for this. We can handle this. The ACC is much better than everyone thinks. The league prepares us for these kinds of matches.

While the Tigers put together a balanced attack, the Wildcats, who entered Thursday ranked third nationally in offensive efficiency, never got going. Arizona’s proximity to Southern California gave a huge advantage in crowd size – with former Wildcats star and longtime NBA player Richard Jefferson mingling with his fellow die-hards behind the team’s bench – but that didn’t translate into initial momentum.

The Wildcats missed their first six shots and didn’t score until nearly four minutes into the game, falling behind by double digits midway through the first half. There wasn’t much to cheer for the anxious section of Arizona fans until Keshad Johnson finished off a rare transition opportunity with an emphatic dunk shortly before halftime.

For Arizona senior guard Caleb Love, in particular, it was a night to forget. The Pac-12 Player of the Year missed his first five shots, threw an ill-advised lob pass off the backboard, carelessly stepped out of bounds and lobbed a fly ball — all before halftime. The North Carolina transfer had four points and three turnovers in the first half as Arizona’s offense struggled to find seams in Clemson’s disciplined, tight half-court defense.

Love, who changed sneakers at halftime in an apparent attempt to change his luck, finished with just 13 points on 5-for-18 shooting, and he missed all nine of his three-point attempts. Hall credited Hunter’s defense over Love, calling his teammate “the best two-way guard in America.”

Physical center Oumar Ballo led the Wildcats with 15 points and 15 rebounds, but his teammates combined to shoot just 5 of 28 (17.9%) from beyond the arc against a Tigers defense that used looks zone to discourage training.

“Clemson did a good job and kind of got us on our heels offensively early in the game,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “We settled for a lot of tough shots. … We had the ability to get to the Final Four and we didn’t. It happens. There is nothing to despise. There are probably eight or ten teams that can say that this year.

Clemson led 39-31 at halftime and was bracing for a frenzied Arizona push that came shortly after the break. Shortly after the Wildcats tied the score at 56 with just under 10 minutes to play, Schieffelin launched a high-arcing three-pointer from the top of the key that kissed cleanly on the glass.

“I thought it was going to hit the back of the rim,” said Schieffelin, a 6-foot-8 forward. “It’s March for you. Shots like this are going to happen. I didn’t call the bank. Whatever it is, it matters. I take it.”

During the streak, Schieffelin twice found Hall, a 6-foot-10 forward, with high and low passes in traffic that led to baskets, and he rose to block a driving attempt by Love. Nodding to Schieffelin’s comfort on the perimeter, Brownell brought up the name Bill Laimbeer, although the Tigers coach noted his player likely wasn’t familiar with the Detroit ‘Bad Boys’ center Pistons.

Clemson’s most elegant work came on an off-court play with just over a minute left: Sensing that Arizona was leaving the paint open to deny perimeter opportunities, Hall slipped to the hoop from the outside and scooped up an easy pass from Hunter and completed an uncontested dunk to restore Clemson’s two-possession lead.

“They moved a lot of screens out of bounds,” said Hall, who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds. “Chase took me to the edge, and it worked. It was a good play.

Arizona’s Jaden Bradley responded with a quick three-pointer after a timeout, but Hunter, a 6-foot-4 senior guard who posted a team-high 18 points, responded calmly with a layup of driving with 25 seconds remaining. As the final seconds ticked down, the wobbling Wildcats lost track of Dillon Hunter as they attempted to foul. The Clemson sophomore guard converted an open layup, sending the Tigers crowd into a frenzy.

“We’re off to a good start,” Brownell said. “These guys held on and finished the game against a very good team. Today was our day.

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