GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Oregon Ducks’ story has been one of the most compelling in the NCAA Tournament, as they’ve attempted to duplicate the success once captured by the “Webfoots” when they won the National Championship in 1939.
And with the Ducks appearing in their first Final Four since their historic victory 78 years ago, they had their moment to re-establish themselves as a national power.
Unfortunately, the Ducks wouldn’t seize it.
Their push for another opportunity to cement their webbed footprints into the scrolls of NCAA history would end Saturday, as Oregon fell to North Carolina 77-76 at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
It was a physical game between the two teams. Both relied on tough perimeter defense and fast-paced play. But the Tar Heels used their dominance on the boards to take command of the game against an Oregon team that lacked size.
“I wish we would’ve been a little sharper,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “We just couldn’t stop them inside.”
While his Ducks did match Carolina with 43 rebounds, they allowed 17 offensive boards, which translated into easy baskets for the Tar Heels’ big men. To offset a lack of physicality, the Ducks penetrated inside and kicked it out to the perimeter. But they couldn’t execute offensively, for they were engulfed by the Tar Heels on the defensive end.
The Ducks couldn’t establish themselves offensively. Guards Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis controlled much of the play on this end, providing nearly half of the team’s points (39). Their offense was neutralized by North Carolina’s length on the perimeter, which forced the Ducks to settle for contested outside shots. Oregon shot 38 percent from the field and 27 percent from three-point range.
But the Ducks continued to fight.
With 9:20 remaining, Ennis scored from inside and Dorsey shot an unwarranted 3-point shot that was recovered by North Carolina. On the opposite end, Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks grabbed his missed free throw and scored, extending the Ducks’ deficit to double digits (66-56), the largest lead of the game.
In turn, the Ducks switched to a full-court press, deviating from their zone, and opting to play man-to-man to neutralize North Carolina’s star Justin Jackson. Their defensive transition, however, made them vulnerable inside, leaving forward Jordan Bell as their lone patrolmen.
Fortunately, Bell sparked a resurgence down the stretch with his efforts on the boards (13 points, 16 rebounds and 4 blocks).
With 1:18 remaining in the game, Bell grabbed an offensive rebound inside and put it up for a contested layup, which reduced the Tar Heels’ lead to four points. The following possession, Oregon used its full court press to force a Carolina turnover and transition 3 for Ennis, who hit the back of the rim. On the next possession, Dorsey hit a shot from long range to pull the game within three points (77-74) with 42 seconds left.
As the game came down to the Tar Heels’ last possession, Bell collected a pivotal defensive rebound and passed the ball to guard Payton Pritchard, who drew defenders mid-court and passed inside to make it a one-point game (77-76) with 5.8 seconds remaining.
It was a prelude to a heart-breaking end to a hard-fought game, because the Ducks would see their defensive energy betray them. With 5.8 seconds on the clock they were forced to foul Meeks, who missed both free throws. But the Tar Heels grabbed the rebound, forcing Oregon to foul once more. North Carolina guard Joel Berry, who suffered an ankle injury the previous game, missed both free throws and again, Meeks recovered the rebound.
Meeks passed the ball out to the perimeter, where the Ducks would drop to their knees in disbelief, for the reality of the end to their potential historic run sank in as the buzzer sounded.
“I wish I had something to say to make them feel better,” Altman said. “It hurts.”