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Clemson Had An Answer For All Of Arizona’s Questions

Chase Hunter #1 of the Clemson Tigers lays up against Keshad Johnson #16 of the Arizona Wildcats during the first half in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Arena on March 28, 2024 in Los Angeles, California
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Last season, Arizona embarrassed itself. There's no other way to put it when a two-seed goes out to a 15-seed, and that's doubly true when that 15-seed is freaking Princeton. So, it's OK to have doubted the Wildcats in this year's tournament, entering as a two-seed again. This felt like a different Arizona team from the start of the tourney, though, and they dispatched Long Beach St. with ease in the opening round before fending off Dayton for what turned out to be a double-digit victory in the round of 32. The Sweet Sixteen is never easy, for any team, but I liked Arizona's chances against Clemson, even though the Tigers had already upset third-seeded Baylor in the previous round.

Well, maybe I shouldn't have liked Arizona quite so much. Clemson came out on Thursday night—well, afternoon in Los Angeles—a house on fire, stifling Arizona's third-ranked offense en route to a 24-12 lead after 12 minutes. The Tigers were on fire from the field, draining jumper after jumper. Even when Arizona threatened to claw back, Clemson had answers ready. A 6-0 Wildcats run would be answered by a 6-1 run the other way. A quick 5-0 burst would be answered with a crowd-quieting Chase Hunter layup. Two free throws at the end of the half would keep Clemson's lead at 39-31. It was all going according to plan for the underdogcats.

On the other side of halftime, though, things started going better for Arizona. Keshad Johnson got to the basket and assisted a three-pointer; large man Oumar Ballo used his size for two buckets in the paint. Caleb Love woke up briefly, from what would eventually be an 0-for-9 from three nightmare, and notched an and-1 to tie the score at 43 less than four minutes into the second half. Even with the stink of Arizona's early exit last season, this felt like the moment when the higher-seeded team asserted its dominance and beat up on the lower-seeded side; hell, UConn had some struggles with San Diego State in the other early game before going on a run of their own and eventually winning by 30. If Arizona had done that, with its high-powered offense, I wouldn't have blinked.

Funny thing, though: Clemson didn't blink. The Tigers never trailed in the second half, instead absorbing every single punch that Arizona threw their way. It wasn't pretty, as Clemson kept giving up offensive rebounds to extend Arizona possessions; the Wildcats ended the night with 17 offensive boards, helping them to a night where all of their points inside the arc were either layups or dunks. But Clemson's two senior leaders kept hitting the buckets they needed to hold fast. Center P.J. Hall made his living in the second half under the basket; he bricked both of his threes in the period, but also went 4-of-5 in the paint.

Then there was guard Chase Hunter, who hit a variety of tough mid-range jumpers—while also missing four threes, which felt ominous as it was happening but amounted to little—to stave off the Wildcats. His biggest play of the game, and really the final dagger in Arizona's comeback, spirited though it was, was a layup through contact. With the clock into the seconds at the end of the game, and just after Jalen Bradley hit a three to cut it to 72-70, Hunter found himself on the right wing, drove past the first man, then hit a whirlwind, almost circus-like, layup as he got fouled by Bradley. After the free throw, Clemson found itself up 75-70 with just 25 seconds left:

That wasn't the actual end of the game; on the other end, Love hit a jumper to knock the lead back down to three, and it was actually Hunter's brother, Dillon, who found himself the beneficiary of some shoddy Arizona in-bounds defense for a wide open layup of his own, and the foul (he would miss the free throw). That put the game solidly out of reach at 77-72 with 11 seconds left, and that's how it would end following a missed desperation three from Bradley.

With that gutsy yet never truly in doubt win, Clemson is now in the Elite Eight for the first time since 1980. Arizona will go home not as embarrassed as last season, but still miles away from its first Final Four since 2001. When it came down to it, Clemson was able to hold off one of the best offenses in the country for just long enough to let its most experienced players carry them home, and Hunter's and-1 will likely live in Tigers basketball lore.

At the very least, Hunter and Hall and Ian Schieffelin (14 points and a fortuitous banked three in the second half) and even the younger Hunter came together at just the right time to send Clemson where Arizona thought it would be. Alabama awaits on Saturday, following their own upset win over North Carolina, and who is to say that Clemson can't hold them off, too? The Tigers aren't a Cinderella (they're still a six-seed after all), but they are playing with house money having knocked off two contenders for the title, and maybe it's now time to think about whether the Tigers have enough fire to burn down the rest of the field.

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