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Grant Nelson has confidence back as Alabama takes on Clemson in West Region final

Grant Nelson made himself a part of Alabama basketball history with his dominant performance against North Carolina.

Now the senior forward is hoping for an even bigger breakthrough: a first trip to the Final Four for the Crimson Tide.

Even though Alabama has relied on guards Mark Sears and Aaron Estrada for most of the season, Nelson's performance in the final 10 minutes of Thursday night's 89-87 victory over the top-seeded Tar Heels is why the fourth-seeded Crimson Tide (24-11) will face No. 6 seed Clemson (24-11) in Saturday night's West Region final.

Nelson became the first player since UCLA's Kevin Love in 2008 to have at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in an NCAA Tournament game. He said it was a way of repaying the confidence he had from friends and teammates, even though he didn't think he deserved it at times.

“Even before this game, just making it to the tournament and winning the first two games, I’ve been getting a lot of love even though I feel like I didn’t perform how I should have. I feel like I let my teammates down,” said Nelson, who had 24 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks.

Even though Nelson's self confidence was lacking before Thursday night, he always had a key supporter in coach Nate Oats.

"I knew what he was capable of when we got him," Oats said. “Grant Nelson deserves to play well. He works hard. He’s been all about the right stuff all year. Even when he struggled, he just stays with it.”

Nelson came to Alabama after three seasons at North Dakota State. He got off to a quick start with at least 20 points in three of his first five games before he began to struggle.

The 6-foot-11 forward had a hard time staying on the floor due to foul trouble. Nelson fouled out in six games during the regular season and had 11 where he had more fouls than field goals.

On Thursday night, Nelson held his own against North Carolina's Armando Bacot, who was 8 of 18 from the field. He also switched out at times on to RJ Davis on the perimeter and got a pair of important stops.

The pivotal plays on defense helped give Nelson confidence offensively. After going 1 for 7 from the field in the Crimson Tide's first two tournament games, Nelson was 6 of 9 against the Tar Heels, including a pair of 3-pointers. He scored 12 of Alabama’s final 14 points.

“I think Grant is a very versatile player. He showed yesterday he could shoot the 3 off the dribble, off the catch. He can take it in the post. He can drive," Estrada said. "So I think for us and our offense it kind of just opens it up for everybody else, especially when he gets going, because we have so many great shooters on our team.”

The Elite Eight matchup will be a rematch from earlier this season, when the Crimson Tide lost 85-77 in an ACC/SEC Challenge game.

Nelson had a size matchup against most of North Carolina's starters, but that will not be the case against Clemson. Center PJ Hall scored 21 points while forward Ian Schieffelin had nine points and 14 rebounds.

“They can both get rebounds, which hurt us last time. They’re both physical, and I think our scouting report wasn’t perfect. We didn’t follow it how we should have. We got a lot of adjustments to make,” Nelson said.

Nelson also noted that the Crimson Tide might have paid too much attention to defending in the low post, which allowed the Tigers too many angles to drive or kick out to their perimeter shooters.

“We’re still kind of learning our role defensively as a team, and I think we’ve grown a lot especially in these past three games. I think that will help going into this game," he said.

Clemson coach Brad Brownell also expects to see a different Nelson compared to the matchup earlier this season.

“He looks more comfortable. Obviously the way he played in the last 10 minutes of the game last night was remarkable. Probably made himself a lot of money,” Brownell said. “We played him early on and he was still kind of feeling it out. I’m sure Nate was doing the same — we’re all trying to put our teams together.”

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