March Madness: Clemson shuts down Caleb Love, Arizona to reach first Elite Eight since 1980

Arizona has now lost four straight times in the Sweet 16, and twice in the last three seasons

LOS ANGELES — For the first time in more than four decades, Clemson is headed to the Elite Eight.

The Tigers, after shutting down Caleb Love and No. 2 Arizona for much of the night, held on down the stretch to grab the 77-72 win over the Wildcats at Arena in Los Angeles. That officially secured their program’s second-ever trip to the Elite Eight. It also marked Arizona’s fourth straight Sweet 16 loss, and the second in three seasons under head coach Tommy Lloyd.

"They were the deserving team today," Lloyd said. "They kind of have a little formula now. They're kind of jumping people in games, three in a row they got up and forced teams to play from behind. We dug deep and we got ourselves back in the game, but we were just never able to take that next step."

For much of the night, Love and the Wildcats’ offense in general was just off. They got off to perhaps the worst start possible by opening the game on the wrong side of a 16-6 run. Love went 0-of-5 from the field to start, too, and Clemson took full advantage. The Tigers kept a double-digit lead deep into the half while largely dominating the floor on defense. Chase Hunter stuffed 7-footer Oumar Ballo at the rim, and then Chauncey Wiggins followed it with a clutch 3-pointer after Love committed a bad turnover off the backboard.

Ballo cut the game to single digits at halftime with a pair of dunks, including a huge one-handed slam off an assist from Jaden Bradley in the final minute, but the Wildcats still entered the locker room down by eight.

Finally, Love and the Wildcats came alive. They came out of halftime on a 12-4 push and tied the game on an and-one layup from Love just minutes into the period. Love then made another layup exactly two minutes later, which gave them their first lead of the game.

But that stretch of offense was short-lived. Arizona shut down once again almost entirely. Despite reaching the free throw line just about every time the Wildcats attacked the rim — they were in the double bonus just seconds after the midway point of the period — they started settling for bad, quick shots from behind the arc. They made just one of their next 19 field goal attempts, which allowed the Tigers to stay a step ahead the rest of the way.

Arizona came close one last time after Bradley finally got a 3-pointer to fall, which cut the game to just two points with under a minute left. Yet Hunter came through on the other end, converting an and-one layup that sent coach Brad Brownell into a Tiger Woods-esque fist-pump on the sidelines. His brother, Dillon Hunter, followed suit with a three-point play of his own to seal the five-point win.

Chase Hunter and Clemson stunned Arizona to reach the Elite Eight for just the second time in program history on Thursday night.
Chase Hunter and Clemson stunned Arizona to reach the Elite Eight for just the second time in program history on Thursday night. (Harry How/Getty Images)

"That was definitely a big moment for our team," Chase said. "When that went in, I had confidence we were going to win that game. And little bro got that and-one and sealed it for us. Big play, secured the win."

Ballo led Arizona with 15 points and 15 rebounds, though he went just 1-of-7 from the free throw line. Bradley added 18 points off the bench, and Love finished with 13 points while shooting 0-of-9 from behind the arc.

Hunter led the Tigers with 18 points and six rebounds in the win, and PJ Hall finished with 17 points and eight rebounds. Clemson, which has trailed for less than a minute combined in the entire NCAA tournament, will now take on Alabama in the Elite Eight on Saturday. The Crimson Tide, thanks to a huge finish from forward Grant Nelson, upset the top-seeded Tar Heels 89-87 in their Sweet 16 game.

Arizona, on the other hand, will now head back to Tucson after yet another disappointing exit from the tournament.