Oregon won the first NCAA Tournament. That was in 1939. They weren’t called the Ducks then; they were the Webfoots.
They haven’t been back to the Final Four since. Until now. Seventy-eight years between, but Oregon has returned to college hoops’ ultimate stage. Thanks to Gonzaga playing up to its seed and smashing myths, the Pacific Northwest has done the unprecedented by sending two teams from the region to the Final Four in the same year.
The third-seeded Ducks effectively won a road game in Kansas City on Saturday night, pulling off a sizable stunner in the Elite Eight by knocking off No. 1 Kansas. This is a Jayhawks team that looked better through the first three rounds of the bracket than any other team in the field. Oregon promptly handed Bill Self one of the most vexing losses of his career.
After cracking the 90-point mark against their first three opponents, the Jayhawks couldn’t even score two-thirds of that, losing 74-60 in Kansas City. It was KU’s lowest-scoring and least-efficient game of its season.
The Ducks are Phoenix-bound because of two players who made themselves a lot of money in the past two weekends -- Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey. Both have been monstrous in this tournament. Bell with all-universe defense, Dorsey with spirit-vanquishing 3-pointers. He had six of them against KU, finishing with 27 points. His 3 from the top of the key with 1:55 left in a six-point game (Jayhawks threatening to come back from an 18-point deficit) was a knife to the kidney. Dorsey’s averaging 25 points per game in this tournament. He is a killer.
With Bell, it sometimes seems there’s more than one of him on the floor. He is always landlording whomever has the ball around the rim. Against KU, he had 11 points that felt like 20, 13 rebounds that felt like 30, and set a program record with eight blocks in a tournament game. KU has thrived on the comeback victory this season, pulling off some remarkable turnarounds, but Bell scared the Jayhawks into bad shots all night long. There were also just unlucky shots. Josh Jackson, Devonte’ Graham and Lagerald Vick combined to go 1-of-13 from 3-point range. Frank Mason’s final game in a KU uniform ended with him scoring 21 points and none of his teammates getting more than 10.
Oregon’s length and size won the day, but shooting 60 percent in the first half, taking an 11-point lead into the break thanks to a banked-in 3 from Dorsey at the end of the half, is what gave the Ducks enough to hold off KU.
Hard to say who has been better over the past four games for this team. Dorsey and Bell should be co-MOPs of the region. (Bell won it.)
Oregon’s flight to Phoenix is worth a long discussion. The five-loss Ducks dropped to the No. 3 line on Selection Sunday after falling in the Pac-12 title game to Arizona, this after losing starting big man Chris Boucher for the season to a knee injury. This led many people (including yours truly) to pick Oregon as a chic upset victim in the second round to Rhode Island. Oregon wouldn’t be the same without Boucher. A wounded team bound for the Sweet 16 — if that.
And then that almost happened. URI should have defeated Oregon, but the Ducks rallied from a double-digit second-half deficit to win 75-72 thanks to a shot in the closing seconds from — who else? — Dorsey.
Then Oregon was a betting underdog to red-hot Michigan, the darling story of the first weekend of the tournament. And the Ducks could well have lost that game too, but they didn’t because Derrick Walton Jr.’s clean look at a 3-pointer in the closing seconds didn’t fall.
Against Kansas, there wasn’t much room for doubt. Oregon’s been a borderline top-10 team all season, but due to the health of Dillon Brooks (foot injury) and the weakness of the Pac-12, we weren’t quite sure how good the Ducks were. Which leads to another fascinating factor: Oregon’s in the Final Four despite Brooks being merely OK. He was the Pac-12 Player of the Year, yet the third most important player the past two weeks. Shows you how good this Ducks starting five is.
Many were rooting for Kansas to go up against UNC or Kentucky and give the Final Four a blueblood de facto title game in the national semifinals. But Oregon showed it’s got the players to win this entire tournament. There are multiple NBA guys on this team, and Brooks is so fiercely competitive, he might run from Kansas City to Phoenix.
The Ducks celebrating in a very empty Sprint Center on Saturday night spoke to the marvel of their achievement. For Oregon to take out the No. 1 seed in its backyard, with the crowd at 90-plus percent KU blue, and make it back to the promised land after 78 years gone? Wacky, quacky. Oregon’s 2017 trail will end with the Ducks down in the desert. Welcome back to the Final Four, Webfoots.