March 17th, 2004 was the last time the Ducks found themselves playing in the first round of the NIT tournament. That year, the 16-12 Ducks had drawn the 18-11 Buffaloes from the Big-12. The Ducks were playing post-season March basketball again, and were coming off of just the second stretch of back to back 20+ win seasons in school history.
While the record may not look like much in hindsight, at the time Oregon was in rebuilding mode after losing the nucleus of a team that had reached the Elite-Eight, and won the conference tournament in consecutive seasons, while posting a combined 49-19 record.
The personnel losses included former Pac-10 player of the year and Pac-10 tournament MVP Luke Ridnour, and the high flying Fred Jones.
Senior Luke Jackson had returned, and was the clear-cut leader of this team. The roster included players like Ian Crosswhite, Andre Joseph, Jordan Kent, James Davis, Adam Zahn, Mitch Platt, and true freshman Aaron Brooks. While all of the players did some good things on the court, Jackson was really the only true and cosistent scoring threat.
The young Aaron Brooks had been prone to turnovers and on the court tantrums, and Davis was a streaky jump shooter who could get hot, but struggled against the premier Pac-10 guards. Joseph and Crosswhite were consistent enough as all-around players, but neither could take over a game on offense. Kent, Platt, and Zahn well, let’s just say they were… more valuable on the defensive end.
Oregon was the only representative of the Pac-12 in the 40 team field which, among others, included Altman’s Creighton Jays, LSU, Notre Dame, Villanova, Purdue, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and the eventual tournament runner-up, Rutgers.
Dana Altman’s former team was narrowly defeated in their game, where they were bounced 71-70 by Nebraska in the first round. Across the bracket, Ernie Kent, Luke Jackson, and the Mac Court crowd were looking to make some noise in another tournament run.
It was Colorado that took an early 9-4 advantage, only to have Oregon take over the lead at 14-11 on a 3 pointer from Aaron Brooks. Colorado then answered with a run of their own, and controlled most of the action in the first half. The Buffs hit back to back threes in the final seconds, and took a 45-30 advantage into halftime.
The Buffaloes came out again looking to start fast and they were able to push the lead to 48-30 before Oregon would manage a rally of their own. Starting with a steal followed by a dunk by Luke Jackson with under 16 minutes to play, the Ducks began putting together a 17-1 run over the next 8 minutes.
Colorado, who had been red hot in the first half, suddenly went cold as nearly 12 minutes elapsed between field goals before a putback by David Harrison with 6 minutes to play.
The Buffs were holding a 52-47 advantage when Luke really started to take over.
In a truly unforgettable and simply remarkable performance, Jackson hit three 3-pointers and went on to score 31 of the Ducks 33 points the rest of the way. The only other player to score for the Ducks was Andre Joseph, who made a pair of free throws late in overtime.
With just under 5 minutes to play, Luke accounted for Oregon’s final 14 points of regulation, knotting the game at 61 on a big 3 pointer. Jackson followed that up with 14 more in overtime, 11 of those coming from the free throw line. In the end, Luke Jackson finished with a staggering 40 points, including 29 straight at one point, and converted 15-for-16 overall on free throws. His outburst allowed the Ducks to turn the momentum in their favor and hold on for a 77-72 win.
The Buffaloes were stunned, and the amped up Mac court crowd was delirious. After the game, even the Colorado players couldn’t help but give credit to the great individual effort. Leading scorer David Harrison, who had 26 points and 12 rebounds in the game, had this to say:
“Forty points is an amazing number to hit,” Harrison said of Jackson. “That final (3-pointer), I was dumbfounded. That didn’t hit anything but the net. He’s just a great player.”
“We were definitely on cloud nine going into halftime,” Harrison said. “But you definitely have to hand it to Oregon, they didn’t want this to be their last game.”
Coach Ernie layed it on even thicker, with:
“We’ve created our own March Madness here in Eugene,” Kent said. “(Jackson’s) performance was the best I’ve seen anywhere.”
Jackson, however, was more humble about the big night:
“You know, you get into a good rhythm and you just go with it, “I’m just happy we’re moving on.”
The Ducks would move on and continue their winning ways over George Mason (68-54), and Notre Dame (65-61). Oregon’s season would reach an end in the semi-final round, where they were defeated by the eventual NIT tournament champion, Michigan.