Oregon’s first Final Four since 1939 results in heartbreak

Justin Toscano, Rivals.com
Duck Sports Authority


GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oregon and North Carolina each grabbed 43 rebounds in Saturday’s Final Four semifinal game, but the Tar Heels hauled in the deciding two in the final seconds. The two that will surely haunt the Ducks for a long time, at least until they return to the NCAA Tournament.

Out of the 86 combined rebounds in the game, the notorious final two provided as cruel and painful of an ending as one could imagine. And with it, No. 3 seed Oregon (33-6) heads back to Eugene the losers of a 77-76 game that was sloppy, but provided an unforgettably unique finish at University of Phoenix Stadium in front of 77, 612 — the second-largest attendance ever for a national semifinal.

After taking the lead at the 1:32 mark of the first half, No. 1 seed North Carolina (32-7) led by as many as 10 points in the second half. And although Oregon’s play may suggest it shouldn’t have had a chance to win the game, it did.

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The Tar Heels led 77-76 with 5.8 seconds to play and senior forward Kennedy Meeks at the free throw line. Meeks had already tied a career high with 25 points and was looking to add to it.

He missed both.

However, North Carolina junior guard Theo Pinson grabbed the offensive rebound and kicked it back out, so the Ducks had to foul again. This time, it was junior guard Joel Berry II’s turn with four seconds left.

He missed both.

And once again, the Ducks couldn’t take advantage as Meeks grabbed the rebound, passed it out and ended Oregon’s season. The two missed opportunities seemed to be brutal, but fitting karma for a Ducks team that hadn’t performed up to par all evening.

“I mean on the first one, it just got tipped out and they got it,” said Oregon junior guard Casey Benson, a Phoenix native whose homecoming wasn’t as special as he’d hoped. “And the second one, they got it again. So I wish I could’ve dove and gotten it. That was on me.”

Oregon junior forward Jordan Bell had a double-double of 13 points and 16 rebounds, and even added four blocks. It was his sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament game with 12 or more boards.

One more could have sent the Ducks to the national championship game on Monday against Gonzaga.

“Jordan felt terrible,” said Oregon head coach Dana Altman. “I told him I said, ‘Buddy, you got 16 rebounds, we wouldn’t have been in this position if it hadn’t been for you.”

He’s right. Oregon probably wouldn’t have stood a chance had Bell not played the way he did on Saturday.

Junior forward Dillon Brooks was the Pac-12 Player of the Year this season. But on Saturday, he didn’t look the part at all.

Brooks scored 10 points on just 2 of 11 shooting and had five turnovers. He wasn’t even on the floor for the final possessions because he fouled out with 1:32 remaining.

“They came and trapped me a couple times,” Brooks said. “I tried to make the best play possible and it was pretty rough. When I tried turning up the heat, I got foul calls and stuff like that. It got me out of my rhythm and the offseason, I got to figure it out and get better.”

Brooks wasn’t the only one who struggled, though. Sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey — who rightfully earned the nickname “Mr. March” with his tournament play — scored a team-high 21 points, but on 3-for-11 shooting. Freshman guard Payton Pritchard only had five points. For most of the game, Oregon’s only consistent performer was guard Dylan Ennis, who had 18 points, six rebounds and three assists in his final game as a Duck.

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North Carolina may have subtly dominated the second half, but Oregon had its chance during the first half. At one point, the Tar Heels were shooting just 18 percent from the floor.

And for as much as some Ducks struggled, North Carolina’s usual contributors had their own issues. Berry scored just 11 points on 2-for-14 shooting and senior forward Isaiah Hicks had two points on 1 of 12.

However, Meeks and junior Justin Jackson (22 points) picked up the slack. Meeks provided a big matchup problem for the Ducks as grabbed 14 boards and only missed two shots on Saturday. The 6-foot-10, 260-pound Meeks is difficult to handle as is, but Oregon certainly missed 6-foot-10 senior forward Chris Boucher, who tore his ACL during the Pac-12 Tournament in March.

“He was a big load in there,” said Brooks of Meeks. “When we were guarding him one-on-one, we were doing pretty good. We were getting him to pass it up and losing the ball and stuff, but we let him get going under there. We got shot blockers, so he’s pump-faking, and we went for his pump fakes, and he was finishing around the rim.”

Oregon hung around in the second half as North Carolina didn’t make a field goal in the final 5:53 of the game. However, the Ducks couldn’t seem to hit the big shot to swing the momentum.

Their offense seemed out of sync as they only had seven assists. They made just 7 of 26 attempted 3-pointers. They also turned the ball over 16 times, which resulted in 20 points for North Carolina.

“They’re going to look back and it’s going to hurt because we didn’t play well at times,” Altman said. “And our turnovers were bad and we made some really bad decisions and quick 3s.”

Oregon trailed No. 7 seed Michigan 68-65 in final stretch of its Sweet 16 game, but the Ducks made their final possessions count and won 69-68.

North Carolina had its bursts on Saturday, but stalled in the final minutes. And if Oregon capitalized on its final possessions, it almost certainly would have been playing on Monday at 6:20 p.m. MST. But it didn’t, and will instead have to watch North Carolina take on Gonzaga in the national championship game.

Oregon hadn’t tasted a Final Four since 1939, a long 78 years. But after the way their return to the event went, even just one year may feel like an eternity.

“It will just take a while for us to get through and get rid of some of this hurt,” Altman said. “But we will. We will.”

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