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Jarin Stevenson becomes Alabama's latest surprise hero in a history-making Final Four run

LOS ANGELES — The unlikely hero of Alabama men’s basketball’s all-time biggest win should still be a senior in high school right now.

Jarin Stevenson only took extra classes to graduate a year early because the Crimson Tide had players leave for the NBA at his position.

Alabama wouldn’t be making its first-ever Final Four appearance next week if Stevenson hadn’t made that decision. The 18-year-old came off the bench to score a season-high 19 points on Saturday night, an unexpected contribution that helped the Tide erase a double-digit first-half deficit and pull away from Clemson for an 89-82 Elite Eight victory.

“Different guys have stepped up throughout this whole deal,” Alabama head coach Nate Oats said. “Jarin, shoot, season high in the biggest game of his life, hit big shot after big shot, made tough play after tough play. He grew up tonight.”

Alabama freshman Jarin Stevenson dropped a career-high 19 points in the biggest game of his life to this point, powering the Crimson Tide to an Elite Eight win over Clemson on Saturday in Los Angeles. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Alabama freshman Jarin Stevenson dropped a career-high 19 points in the biggest game of his life to this point, powering the Crimson Tide to an Elite Eight win over Clemson on Saturday in Los Angeles. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images) (Ben Solomon via Getty Images)

While Mouhamed Dioubate’s late offensive rebounds rescued Alabama against Grand Canyon and Grant Nelson’s late onslaught propelled the Tide past North Carolina, Stevenson may be his team’s most improbable savior yet. This is a kid who entered Saturday shooting 29% from behind the arc, who has tallied double figures once since early December and who was coming off a scoreless game two nights earlier in the Sweet 16.

With Nelson picking up two fouls in the opening four minutes Saturday night against Clemson, Oats had little choice but to turn to Stevenson off the bench. The 6-foot-11 freshman had a catch-and-shoot opportunity on his first possession, released the ball confidently and … badly missed the rim altogether.

Earlier in the season, Stevenson might not have shot again the rest of the night. Even Saturday, his belief in himself briefly wavered. He passed up an open corner 3-pointer a little later in the first half, only to have teammate Aaron Estrada encourage him to let it fly.

“I told him, just shoot the ball,” Estrada recalled. “Be confident. You're built for this. You put the work in.”

Buoyed by the support of his teammates, Stevenson embraced the next shot mentality that Oats has preached to him all season. He sank a pair of corner 3s in a span of less than two minutes, helping Alabama rally from an early 26-13 hole to take a narrow lead into halftime.

Stevenson struck again in the second half, burying three more catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, each one coming after Clemson had clawed within a single shot of the lead. He also held his ground defensively in the post against Clemson’s bruising big men, giving Oats the confidence to play him a season-high 25 minutes.

“Jarin had the game of his life, the game of his Alabama career,” Alabama guard Rylan Griffen said. “Every 3 he made came at the right time. He’ll be remembered as a ‘Bama legend forever just for this performance.”

It’s no surprise that Stevenson was a coveted recruit considering his basketball bloodlines. His mom won multiple ACC titles at North Carolina in the mid-90s. His dad played pro basketball overseas in South Korea.

Since Stevenson spent his high school years in Chapel Hill and has family ties to North Carolina, many assumed he’d play for the Tar Heels after coach Hubert Davis offered. Stevenson instead committed to Alabama because they had more of a need for him after forward Noah Clowney and center Charles Bediako left for the NBA Draft last year.

“We looked at the roster and there were a lot of people at his position at Carolina,” Stevenson’s dad, Jarod, told Yahoo Sports. “It was going to be hard for him to get a lot of playing time. At Alabama, a lot of people left. At the time that he signed, there was nobody at his position.”

Nelson’s decision to transfer from North Dakota State last June enabled Alabama to bring Stevenson along slowly off the bench. He showcased tantalizing potential in practice but only occasional flashes in games.

“He didn’t want to step on anybody’s shoes,” Jarod said. “He’s the youngest guy on the team. It was hard for him to be assertive.”

So when Stevenson followed a scoreless game against hometown North Carolina by air-balling his first 3-pointer on Saturday, his mom and dad grew concerned that he would be tentative.

“Then he started making everything, and we were going crazy,” Jarod said. “To see him shoot these types of shots really, really made me proud.”

By the end of the game, Jarod’s smile stretched from ear to ear. He flashed it when he stamped Alabama on the bracket, when he threw red and white confetti in the air and when he climbed a ladder to cut down a piece of net.

And he flashed it when Alabama’s best player, Mark Sears, said that Jarin’s performance on Saturday night was his favorite memory of the team’s Final Four run so far.

“We don't win this game without him making those timely 3s,” Sears said. “Just seeing him do that and him maturing and growing up, that's really a memory.”

Asked later how it felt to hear Sears say that, Stevenson smiled once more and said, “That is pretty cool.”