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Alabama advances to its third ‘sweet sixteen’ NCAA tournament appearance under Oats

The Alabama Crimson Tide are still dancing.

In an absolute slugfest that came down to the final minutes Sunday, Alabama defeated the Grand Canyon Antelopes 72-61 in the Round of 32 via a 10-0 run down the stretch to close it out.

The victory pushes Alabama to its third ‘sweet sixteen’ placement in the last four years, and the first time it has reached back-to-back Sweet Sixteens since 1990-91 under Wimp Sanderson.

It was a matchup that, at times, felt more like a wrestling match than a basketball game, with players from both teams in foul trouble all night due to the physical nature of the game.

Grand Canyon attempted 37 free throws but did not make the most of the opportunities by officials, missing a staggering 14 of its attempts while Alabama missed just six of its 22 attempts.

Alabama led by 8 at halftime after closing out the first frame with one of its best runs of the night, but the first half didn’t come without cost as Latrell Wrightsell was lost early on due to a head injury.

In typical fashion, it was Mark Sears who led the way for the Tide on offense, but it was Sears’ defense that was just as big of a difference maker down the stretch.

The senior guard from Muscle Shoals put up 26 points along with 12 rebounds and six assists.

But the hero of the night for Alabama was freshman forward Mouhamed Dioubate.

With the game on the line down the stretch and Grant Nelson, Jarin Stevenson, and Rylan Griffen all in foul trouble, Dioubate stepped up in ways we have not yet seen during his young career.

Despite playing just 13 minutes on the night, Dioubate logged some of the most important plays of the night.

Right after Grand Canyon took its first lead since the beginning of the game with just five minutes left, Dioubate had a massive and-one and would nail the free throw as well.

Even as a sub-50 percent free throw shooter on the year, Dioubate would go three of three at the charity stripe down the stretch and finish with nine points (all in the second half) along with five rebounds off the bench that Alabama needed every bit of.

While Nick Pringle’s numbers won’t be the highlight of the stat sheet (six points and nine rebounds), he played 25 massive minutes for Alabama and was a complete menace on the defensive end.

Head coach Nate Oats said after the game that Pringle was as good as he has been the entire season.

Once the duel finally ended, Oats called Alabama’s defensive performance the best of the season.

“We really try to build the program on toughness, blue collar and it hasn’t been what we’d like to see all the year. It was there tonight. Without it, we don’t win tonight,” Oats said, describing the victory as a ‘character win.’

Alabama now advances to face the No. 1 seed in the West region, the North Carolina Tar Heels in a game that will be played in Los Angeles on late Thursday evening.

A victory would have the Tide advancing to the Elite Eight, somewhere they have been just twice in program history and not since 2004.

Michael Brauner is a Senior Sports Analyst and Contributing Writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @MBraunerWNSP

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