Exciting Day One of Sweet Sixteen Action

Exciting Day One of Sweet Sixteen Action

By Myles Papponi

Nothing seemed as sweet as being part of the last 16 teams in the tournament until that obstacle was achieved, and teams became part of the last eight in the tournament. Achieving this is a truly elite feat. The Men’s NCAA Tournament continued Thursday with the first slate of Sweet Sixteen games. Four teams could continue their run into the Elite Eight, while the other four would be sent home.

The Sweet Sixteen action kicked off with #6 Clemson facing #2 Arizona. Clemson continued its aggressive and engaging defensive play by holding the top-three offense in the nation to 37.3% from the floor and only surrendering five shots from deep. Arizona was able to claim a slight lead late, but Clemson would make critical shots and free throws to keep them at bay. With under a minute left, the Wildcats cut the lead to three after Jaden Bradley made a tough contested three. In response, Clemson brothers Chase and Dillon Hunter had emphatic back-to-back And-1 layups to secure the win for Clemson. Chase played another complete game, posting 18 points, 5 assists, and 8 rebounds. Clemson forward Ian Schieffelin also made great shots from three and in the post during crunch time and had 14 points and 7 boards for the game.

Clemson answered by drilling a three, or wide-open layup out of a timeout every time Arizona made a run to make the game close. Clemson’s ability to slow down fast-paced teams in transition with their defense, have timely fouls, and play excellent half-court offense allows them to hold onto early leads and continue to win in the tournament. Winning close games and holding onto leads wins games in the postseason. The final score of the game was 77-72. The Tigers move on to the Elite Eight for just the second time in program history, leaving Lobos fans wondering about what could have been.

Going into Thursday, San Diego State was the last Mountain West Conference team remaining in the tournament. They would face the #1 UConn Huskies with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line. The Aztecs did not allow UConn to jump out to an early lead, only having a deficit of nine at halftime. Star Center for the Huskies, Donovan Clingan, was held to 8 points and, despite standing a lean 7’2”, did not bother or give Aztecs Forward Jaedon LeDee any problems having 18 points and 8 boards. The rest of Clingan’s team would pick up the slack, and UConn would ultimately be too much for San Diego State after a dominant second half where they outscored the Aztecs by 21 to win 82-52. UConn guard Cam Spencer led his team with 18 points, but not one player on UConn’s roster would score over 20, primarily because they didn’t need it.

The team had decent scoring coming off the bench, but their defense achieved the win for this game. San Diego State was held to just 52 points with 5 shots from beyond the arc. The most compelling thing about this win for UConn was how, even though they were not up by much at the half, they were able to stay composed and give effort on the defensive end to win the game rather than forcing bad shots to attempt to win the game on the offensive side of the ball. The Huskies advance to the Elite Eight, where they continue to try to be the first repeat National Champion since the 2007 Florida Gators. Their opponent in the next round will be #3 Illinois, where this is becoming UConn’s tournament to lose after another assertive win.

Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles was the perfect setting for the close back-and-forth contest between #1 North Carolina and #4 Alabama. Both teams played at a fast pace, allowing them to go on their own runs throughout the game to gain and lose the lead. The Tar Heels would go up at the half by eight behind their ten first-half three-pointers. The second half would be a different story for North Carolina, only sinking two from deep. North Carolina guard RJ Davis did not shoot the ball well, going 4/20 from the field and 0 for 9 from three. Late in the game, Davis did create shots for himself and others and sank high-pressure free throws. UNC’s star forward Armando Bacot would add another double-double to his college career with 19 points and 12 rebounds.

The Tar Heels leaders could not do enough during the most challenging minutes of the game and would fall to Alabama 87-89. Alabama forward Grant Nelson had an electrifying performance. He led his team with 24 points and pulled down 12 rebounds. Nelson was all over the court, making clutch shots, free throws, and blocks to close out the game. This includes a fantastic block on Bacot and a huge three-point play to put the Crimson Tide up with less than a minute left in the game. What appeared to be UNC’s redemption tour ends as Alabama makes its first trip to the Elite Eight in 20 years and second in program history. Their next-round matchup will no doubt be a great one between Alabama, who loves to make and shoot threes, and Clemson, who, during the tournament, has stopped great shooting and high-powered offenses.

The first day of the Sweet Sixteen ended with a tight contest between #3 Illinois and #2 Iowa State. The fifty-fifty plays seemed to fall in favor of Illinois, including a play that would have been a steal for Iowa State, but it ended up being deflected off Illinois’ backboard and then tipped in for 2 points. To their credit, Illinois was able to weather the storm after the Cyclones dug themselves out of a 13-point deficit. Illinois made significant plays down the stretch and took advantage of careless turnovers late by Iowa State. With 30 seconds left and only down by 4, Iowa State made a casual one-handed pass that Illinois guard Terrence Shannon JR. took for a breakaway dunk to send the Cyclones packing for their long trip home. Terrence also had a game-high in points with 29. The final score of the game was 72-69. Illinois punches its ticket to the Elite Eight, where their reward is to play the #1 overall seed UConn.

The Sweet Sixteen will continue Friday, tipping off at 5:09 pm MDT, where #11 NC State will look to upset #2 Marquette. Other exciting matchups to tune into are #1 Purdue facing off against # 5 Gonzaga at 5:39 pm MDT and #4 Duke looks to have another dominant win and take down #1 Houston at 7:39 pm MDT. All these teams hope to continue their run in the big dance and be a part of that elite group of the last eight standing.