KANSAS CITY — The last time Oregon was here, the last time nets were snipped down, the last time players jumped and hugged, the last time a trophy was lifted on an Elite Eight floor with the Ducks present, Dillon Brooks stared toward the ground.
“Here,” last time, was Anaheim, and the players jumping were Oklahoma’s. A piece of nylon was in Buddy Hield’s hat. Brooks, meanwhile, sat in front of his locker. He had scored just seven points in an 80-68 loss. His eyes were glued to the floor.
“This one’s gonna hurt,” he said, dejected.
And it did hurt.
“I was depressed,” Brooks recalls. “I didn’t talk to nobody after.” He was down for a full week, wounded by the thought of being so close, yet now being so far.
“I’m gonna remember this feeling,” he said on that night, 364 days ago.
And he did remember. And so did many others, determined to get back to this stage, and determined to go one step further.
Oregon did get back to the stage, and did go a step further, stunning Kansas Saturday night to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1939. And it did so because they, the players, didn’t forget.
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A couple weeks after the Elite Eight loss to Oklahoma, a couple weeks after the dejection, Jordan Bell walked into head coach Dana Altman’s office. It was nothing staged, just coach and player, reconvening after a long season. Bell, alone in the room with Altman, made a promise.
“Coach,” he said, “I promise I’ma get you there. I promise I’ma get you to the Final Four.”
Or rather, he reiterated a promise. It wasn’t the first time Altman heard those words coming from Bell’s mouth. He heard them soon after Bell stepped on campus for the first time in 2014. Before Bell left, he said, he would get Altman to the pinnacle.
Altman, who is 58 years old, and who has been coaching college basketball for 37 years, would sometimes chide Bell, reminding him of the promise. “I’m getting old,” he’d joke. But Bell, heading into his junior year, reassured Altman.
Eleven-and-a-half months later, he would fulfill the promise in a big way.
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It wasn’t just Brooks. It wasn’t just Bell. Ever since the Ducks recovered from the Elite Eight loss, it became a driving force behind much of what they did.
“That loss has fueled us,” junior guard Casey Benson says. “Not wanting to have that feeling again has fueled us.”
Shortly after the loss, Benson was back home in Arizona, and one day looked up to see a promotional board. The board had a countdown to the 2017 Final Four, which, conveniently, was being held in Phoenix, near Benson’s hometown. So Benson took out his phone, took a picture of the countdown, and sent it to all his teammates on Snapchat.
Throughout the offseason, the Final Four was in the players’ minds, which is nothing unique — dozens of teams think about the same thing every year. But Oregon had something others didn’t; it had the feeling that Brooks and other players ruminated on in that locker room in Anaheim. Everything from that day lingered.
“Every practice, every game, somehow, some way, that came up,” assistant coach Mike Mennenga says of this season. “That lesson was so deeply embedded in our hearts.”
Altman says that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but whether the Oklahoma game was explicitly used as motivation or not, it was implicitly present. It was present as the Ducks ground through offseason workouts, even after Brooks underwent foot surgery in August. It was present after Oregon lost two of its first four games; as it won 17 in a row after Brooks returned; after it lost to lowly Colorado in January. It was even present after a win at Oregon State on the final Saturday of the regular season, a victory that clinched a second straight Pac-12 title.
But a Pac-12 title wasn’t the ultimate goal.
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Hours after the Ducks rocked Oregon State in Corvallis, back at home, somebody else was rocking: Elton John. The famous singer was performing at Matthew Knight Arena, and Oregon assistant coach Kevin McKenna arrived back in Eugene in time to attend.
The following day, McKenna realized his daughter had left her jacket at the concert, so he went back to the arena to retrieve it. When he did, he heard the bounce of a basketball.
It was coming from the adjacent practice court, so McKenna went to investigate. He found Tyler Dorsey, on the court, by himself. On a Sunday. Shooting.
“He had a look on his face,” McKenna says. “He was upset with how he had played.”
It was odd to see such a look after an 80-59 win, but Dorsey, a talented sophomore guard, had scored only one point. A week earlier, he had scored just five against Cal.
“We secured a back-to-back, but I didn’t think I played as well,” Dorsey says. “So I got in the gym. I did that three times before the Pac-12 tournament.”
Dorsey also makes 100 3-pointers, and sometimes more, after every practice. Some days, he’ll do the same before practice. He makes 20 each from five spots, and at times won’t move on to the next spot until he makes four of five consecutive attempts. It was an intermittent routine throughout the season, but became a daily one over the last month.
The first time Dorsey took the court after the lonely Sunday shooting session, he scored 21 points against Arizona State. The following day, he had 23 against Cal. The following night, 23 against Arizona. He dropped 24 on Iona in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and spurred Oregon’s comeback from 10 down against Rhode Island in the second round with 27. The 25th, 26th and 27th came on a tie-breaking, game-winning 3-pointer in the final minute.
The shot was why Dorsey went to the gym on that Sunday, and why he goes late at night or early in the morning. “So when I take those shots,” he says, “they feel good.”
Dorsey scored 20-plus points in six consecutive games to earn the nickname “Mr. March,” and to set up Saturday’s Elite Eight showdown with mighty Kansas.
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The day after the Ducks beat Michigan to advance to the regional final, thoughts of the Oklahoma game came flooding back — some admittedly prompted by reporters. Brooks’ memory of the game is remarkably vivid. He recalled the Sooners’ dominance on the offensive glass. He recalled Hield, Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins knifing to the rim. He also recalled one other thing about the buildup to the game.
“Last year, we were so happy to get to the Elite Eight,” he said.
Others remembered this too. They remembered the water fights in the locker room, the soaked floors, the premature showers after each tourney win.
A year later, they noticed something different. Water bottles weren’t necessary. Water coolers were still full. Floors were dry. After the first round. After the second. Even after the Sweet 16.
“We never said it out loud, but everybody here knows that our goal is to make it to the Final Four,” Bell said Friday. “So everybody is coming in like … OK …”
Said Dorsey: “We’ve been here. We’re not satisfied until we get past this point.”
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They hadn’t been here, though. Not in Kansas City. Not in front of 18,000 blue- and red-clad fans who greeted every Jayhawk basket with a thunderous roar. The air quivered every time the roar came.
But every time it came, it only energized the very people it was supposed to intimidate. Brooks loved it. He strutted back down the court after every one of his three 3-pointers and flashed a villainous smile toward the crowd. Dorsey loved it, too. He splashed six 3s, including a bank shot that he didn’t call and a dagger with under two minutes remaining, after which he brought his right index finger to his pursed lips.
And Jordan Bell… well, he must have loved the stage.
“That was one heck of a performance,” an almost awestruck Altman said afterward. “He was tremendous.”
Bell was more than tremendous. He was darn near impeccable. His strength and athleticism were breathtaking. He pulled down 13 rebounds and swatted away eight Kansas shots. He was named the most outstanding player of the regional, and is the latest breakout star of March.
Bell grew up playing football, which he credits for his affinity for defense. “I played defensive end,” he says. “I thought offense was for soft people.”
But he doesn’t attribute his shot-blocking ability to football. “That came from Guitar Hero,” Bell says, completely seriously. “In Guitar Hero, you have to press and strum at the same time. It’s all about timing.”
As the final seconds of the game clock, and the final seconds of the countdown to Phoenix ticked away, Brooks sprinted toward the bench. Dorsey threw his hands up into the air at midcourt. Bell found Altman and fell into his arms. And maybe, just maybe, he whispered into his ear.
Finally, after ladders had been raised, after rims had been stripped of nets, the players, with confetti embedded in the sweat on their necks and cheeks, retreated into their locker room. And finally, for the first time in over a year, water flew. Basketball shoes crushed ice on the floor. Altman got his shower. And a big blue Powerade cooler sat there on the floor, empty.
More NCAA tournament coverage on Yahoo Sports:
• Recently fired Tom Crean attends Indiana women’s basketball game
• Darius Rucker won’t miss South Carolina basketball, even when there’s a concert
• Frank Mason’s Kansas career ends without a Final Four appearance
• Gonzaga throttles Xavier to send Mark Few to his first Final Four