ST. LOUIS (AP)—Tajuan Porter knows what people think the first time they see him on the basketball court.
Little guy, 5-foot-6 on his best day, a body that’s not exactly built for power. No way Oregon’s pint-sized point guard is going to be able to hang with the big boys, let alone bust out skills that will leave folks speechless.
Go ahead and dismiss him, Porter’s used to it. Be warned, though. There’s a long line of teams—good teams—that paid the price for underestimating him.
“I think about that a lot when I’m out there on the court,” Porter said Saturday. “Because obviously my size was an issue. That’s why so many schools shied away from me. So I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunity and prove everybody wrong.”
The freshman has been doing it all year long, averaging 14.8 points per game and setting an Oregon record with 108 3-pointers.
Now he’s got the chance to show folks outside the Northwest what he can do when third-seeded Oregon (29-7) plays top-seeded Florida (32-5) on Sunday in the Midwest Regional finals.
“I thrive in this moment,” Porter said, his eyes lighting up. “I always wanted to play in this environment, on this stage.”
Porter is the reason the Ducks are a game away from their first Final Four since 1939, when they won the national championship. UNLV couldn’t contain him Friday night, and he went off for eight 3s and 33 points on 9-of-17 shooting to lead Oregon to a 76-72 victory.
Yet growing up, all he heard was that he was too small.
Porter’s father and older brother, Terrance, are both 6 feet. He so badly wanted to reach their height when he was younger that he’d hang from things, hoping to stretch his body.
Most kids his size would give up the game when they realized they weren’t going to grow anymore, go play something else. Not Porter.
“You can be whatever you want to be. Tajuan proves that,” Oregon coach Ernie Kent said. “If you’ve got a big enough heart and a big enough game, you play at this level and play beyond this level.”
The Detroit native teamed with Oregon teammate Malik Hairston to lead Renaissance High School to a state title in 2004, then added another in ’06. He was all-everything his senior year, when he averaged 26.3 points, six rebounds, five assists and five steals a game.
But while some schools showed casual interest—he got a letter from Florida — only the Ducks were begging Porter to come play.
“I really liked him,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought he was a tough kid. I thought he was a great competitor. I thought he wanted the ball in his hands. I thought he wanted to take big shots. I really admired him.
“But ours was more our numbers, of what we already had.”
The Gators were more than set at guard with starters Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green, and Walter Hodge off the bench. It might have been the same scenario at other schools.
To Porter, though, it was more people telling him he couldn’t play.
“I’ve heard it from so many people and sometimes I’d really go home discouraged,” he said. “My mom told me don’t let anybody steal my joy. Don’t let anybody tell me I can’t do something.”
The same could be said for the rest of the Ducks.
Florida returns the starting five from last year’s national championship team, and are trying to be the first team to repeat since Duke in 1992. They have size in Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer. They have speed in Humphrey and Green. They’re so talented, they can play any style that’s thrown at them.
They’ve struggled a bit in the tournament, coming from behind in all three games. But whenever it’s needed, they find a way to seize control.
“They’re always on ESPN and stuff like that,” said Aaron Brooks, Oregon’s leading scorer. “You see them running and playing hard and winning games and stuff. They’re a great team. They’ve got a great front court and great guards, too.”
People aren’t as familiar with the Ducks—but don’t tell Donovan that.
“I feel like you’re trying to sit there and say we don’t know anything about Oregon. We know plenty about Oregon,” Donovan said, testily. “We know how good they are. We know how big this challenge is.”
It’s not a question of respect, though. It’s geography.
“I didn’t know about Oregon,” Porter said. “I didn’t even know Oregon was a state until Malik came here.”
Oregon is a Pac-10 school, with games that start when most folks on the East Coast are going to bed. Most people never see a Ducks game. They might catch a highlight or two.
“It doesn’t bother us that people don’t get to see us play,” Bryce Taylor said. “It’s our job to make sure that when we do get the opportunity to play in front of people who haven’t seen us play, we represent our team to the fullest and make sure we let people know what Oregon basketball is about.”
So far, the Ducks have done pretty well. They traveled to Georgetown in November and won, 57-50. They handed UCLA its first loss, the first time Oregon had beaten a No. 1 team since 1974. They also beat two other top-10 teams, Washington State and Arizona.
They like to run ‘n gun and shoot the 3, and all five starters average in double figures. They’re also pests defensively.
“If you look at their personnel and see what they do individually, it’s almost scary,” Noah said. “They’re a team that can really score from any position, 15-20 points easy.”
Even that little guy who everybody said would never make it to the big game.
“He’s definitely a diamond in the rough. He’s been showing that the whole year,” Brooks said. “We’re glad to have the little guy.”