LAS VEGAS — In the timeout before its final possession Friday night, Oregon's coach and best player disagreed on what play had the best chance to send the Ducks to the Pac-12 title game.
Dana Altman wanted to run Joseph Young off a series of screens to try to free him for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. Young preferred to have the ball in his hands so he could create his own shot or set up one of his teammates if Utah chose to double team him
Never has Altman been so happy to have lost an argument than after Young proved allowing him to bring the ball up court himself was the correct decision. The Pac-12 player of the year shed his defender via a Dillon Brooks screen, pulled up from nearly 30 feet and buried a last-second 3-pointer over the long arms of Jakob Poeltl to give Oregon a 67-64 victory.
"I was going to run him off some screens to get him a shot because we had 7.2 seconds, but he said, 'No, I want to bring it up,'" Altman said. "I thought with 7.2 he might take it to the basket, but he pulled it from 35 or so."
Oregon's semifinal victory earns the second-seeded Ducks a third crack at top-seeded Arizona in Saturday's Pac-12 title game. The Wildcats have pounded Oregon by 18 in Eugene and by 34 in Tucson this season, but they'll see a far different Ducks team this time.
Since its second loss to Arizona on Jan. 28, Oregon has reeled off 11 wins in 12 games to surge from the fringes of the NCAA tournament picture into position to earn a single-digit seed. The rapidly improving Ducks will be a team nobody wants to draw in the NCAA tournament next week whether they upset Arizona on Saturday or not.
That Oregon is NCAA tournament-bound at all is remarkable considering the patchwork roster Altman is fielding.
Seven of Oregon's nine leading scorers from last season are no longer with the team, three via graduation, one via transfer and three via dismissal after rape allegations. Returners Young and Elgin Cook have been the stalwarts for the Ducks all season while newcomers Brooks, Dwayne Benjamin, Jordan Bell and Ahmad Rorie have gradually grown into key roles.
"We've made progress," Altman said. "We'll find out how much progress tomorrow night. But defensively we've gotten better, and the zone has helped us some. The soft press has helped us some. We were scoring baskets early, but defensively we were giving up a lot of easy baskets."
The Utah game was a good test of how far the Ducks have come. Not only have the Utes been a fixture in the AP Top 25 all season, they were coming off a brilliant performance in a rout of sixth-seeded Stanford the previous night.
Oregon got pounded on the glass and surrendered a combined 40 points to Utah guards Delon Wright and Brandon Taylor, but the Ducks nonetheless appeared to take control in the second half thanks to the scoring of Young, Brooks and Cook. They led by two with the ball in the final minute until an offensive foul on Young and a controversial foul on Jordan Bell enabled Wright to tie the game at the free throw line.
That paved the way for Young's heroics.
The senior guard decided to take the shot himself when Poeltl didn't hedge on the Brooks screen. He pulled up from way beyond the 3-point line when he saw Poeltl retreating in case Young attacked off the dribble.
The result was Young's first time being at the bottom of a dog pile.
"I was just trying to make sure I didn't bust my lip or anything and just cover up," Young joked. "It's a good feeling, but it can only be in our heads for a few more hours. We have to get some sleep and then we have another ball game tomorrow."
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