When Oregon officials hired Dana Altman seven years ago, they had hoped he was the right guy to take the program to the next level.
That dream came true Saturday night when the Ducks upset 1-seed Kansas 74-60 to win the Midwest Regional and advance to their first Final 4 in almost 80 years.
It was a much different locker room on this night than it was last season at this time when Oklahoma denied the Ducks a chance at the national championship.
But this Kansas team didn’t have Buddy Hield, the former Sooner who torched Oregon for 37 points. The closest the Jayhawks had was Frank Mason, III, who managed 21 points, but just four coming in the second half.
Mason single-handedly kept the Jayhawks in the game with a huge first half performance with 17 points. It was Oregon’s defense that shut down every one else to let the Ducks grab a 44-33 lead at the break.
The last minute of the first half was critical as Tyler Dorsey nailed two three-pointers to give Oregon a double-digit lead. The first trey hit nearly every part of the rim before dropping through the net. Then Dorsey banked a 30-footer at the buzzer that might have shell-shocked the virtual home team.
While Dorsey was hurting Kansas from the outside, the X-factor for the Ducks was Jordan Bell on the inside. The junior picked the perfect time to have his best game of his career. He was two blocks away from a triple-double. Bell scored 11 points and brought down 13 rebounds to go with eight blocks.
“I thought Jordan Bell was unbelievable on the defensive end tonight. He got a couple of blocks early and I thought it really put a thought in their mind,” Dana Altman said. “Tyler hit some big threes, especially the two right before the half and the one when it got to 66-60. And Dillon Brooks just gives us a lot of passion. He played extremely hard. He gave us some big buckets, and I thought Dylan Ennis gave us a big lift both offensively and defensively.”
Bell’s eight blocks were huge, but it was the countless shots Bell changed or just plain intimidated players into not taking that helped Oregon’s defensive effort.
Dorsey ended the game with 27 points on 9-of-13 from the field, including 6-of-10 from long range. Many of those threes kept the Jayhawks at bay and prevented possible rallies to begin. The sophomore guard has to be the early frontrunner to be the tournament’s MVP.
Oregon held a double-digit lead for much of the second half until Kansas finally got their fans something to cheer about. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk hit a corner three to make the game a two-possession game at 66-60 with 2:53 remaining. As it turned out, that was the only three-pointer Kansas would make in the second half.
The Jayhawks managed to get a defensive stop when Dorsey was forced to launch a three to beat the shot clock. No one for Oregon went for the offensive rebound, but it was meant to be as the ball went through two Jayhawks players’ hands and right into the arms of Bell.
“We were running a play that was supposed to go down the gut to Jordan and I wasn’t playing attention to the shot clock, so it was my fault and when I was looking at it and I just threw up a desperation shot and I guess they didn’t box out and Jordan got a big rebound,” Dorsey said.
Oregon wouldn’t let the opportunity slip away as Dorsey hit a three with 1:55 left and a 69-60 lead.
Kansas just couldn’t hit a big three to make Oregon sweat or to get the partisan crowd make their presence known. The Jayhawks were just 5-of-25 from long distance and 35 percent from the field overall. Oregon was blistering from the field all night long as the Ducks shot 51 percent and were 11-of-25 from long range.
Kansas did force 13 Oregon turnovers, many in the second half due to its tight defense. But the Jayhawks never could take advantage with their poor shooting night.
Altman managed to reflect on what it took to build the program back up over the last seven years since he was hired away from Creighton.
“It’s a special group. I’ve been fortunate. The seven years we’ve been at Oregon we’ve had great guys to work with,” he said. “I feel great for those guys that our staff had a relationship with, but I also feel good for the all the other players that have built Oregon basketball. 1939 is a long drought, but there are a lot of guys that played and built some tradition at Oregon. We owe all the ex-players and our staff in particular the last seven years, Joevan Catron, EJ Singler, and Garrett Sim. I would miss guys if I tried to name them all, but those guys stayed with us and helped us build something.”
With one blueblood program out of the way, another one will be waiting for Oregon next weekend in Phoenix. The Ducks will play North Carolina after the Tar Heels defeated Kentucky 75-73 on a game-winning jumper with 0.3 seconds on the clock for an instant classic.
Roy Williams’ squad brings tons of talent and history to Phoenix as UNC is an early 4.5 point favorite, which is probably the right call. North Carolina finished won the ACC regular season title with a 26-6 overall mark and 14-4 conference mark. They did advance to the ACC tourney semifinals before falling to Duke.
North Carolina presents many of the same problems for the Ducks as Kansas did. But five minutes into the Kansas game, it was evident that not only did the Ducks belong on the floor with that particular blue blood program, they were the better team. The same should occur next weekend at the Final Four.
~ Don Smalley