I wrote this past Thursday that Oklahoma State would be a tough matchup for the men of Oregon in the NCAA Tournament round of sixty-four. The Ducks would need to play the game at their pace, limit turnovers, and limit Cowboy sharpshooter Phil Forte to ensure victory. After a hard-fought 79-73 victory, it is time to examine whether these predictions held true.
First, the game was certainly played at Oregon’s pace, with the scoring going well into the seventies. This tempo pushed Oklahoma State out of its comfort zone, especially on the defensive end. As a result, Oregon shot a scintillating 54.7% from the field.
Second, the Ducks did a decent job in the turnover department, finishing even with the Cowboys in that statistic. Each squad finished the game with twelve giveaways. While Oregon did not win the turnover battle, it did not lose the turnover battle either, which was the key going in against a defensive-minded Oklahoma State team.
Third, the Ducks did an excellent job on Forte, limiting Oklahoma State’s second-leading scorer to twelve points and, more importantly, one three-point field goal. I wrote on Thursday that if Forte got loose for at least four threes, the Ducks would be in trouble. Well, they held Forte below his season average in three- point field goals, consistently running the Cowboy star off the line and forcing him to put the ball on the floor.
Ultimately, these three keys to the game produced a six-point victory against a talented, battle-tested Big-12 opponent. Frankly, the game would not have been that close if Oklahoma State point guard Anthony Hickey, Jr. had not gone off for five three-pointers and seventeen points, despite averaging only 9.6 points per game all season.
But the Ducks staved off the surprise attack from Hickey—who effectively replaced Forte’s production in the Cowboy offense — by getting a big performance from their star, senior Pac-12 Player of the Year Joseph Young.
Oregon’s offense was visibly stagnant early in the first half, and the Ducks found themselves down 36-28 with roughly five minutes to go in the half. That is when Young exploded for fifteen straight points, turning an eight-point deficit into a four-point halftime lead.
But Young’s explosion was more important than just a halftime lead. It was a confidence booster for the entire Oregon team. When a star takes over a game like Young did by scoring fifteen points in just over four minutes, it energizes everybody else on the floor. Suddenly the intensity level goes up, players make the extra pass, rotate a split-second earlier, and compete just a fraction harder for loose balls.
We saw this increased effort from the Ducks on Friday night in the second half and, as noted, if it wasn’t for the hot shooting of Hickey Jr., Oregon would have probably won the game going away. In other words, this was an impressive overall performance from a team clearly peaking at the right time.
Does this mean Oregon can knock off Wisconsin to reach the Sweet Sixteen? Of course it can. This is a talented team with multiple weapons. Elgin Cook chipped in eighteen points, five rebounds, three assists, and three steals against Oklahoma State, and freshman Dillon Brooks showed he was ready for prime time with seventeen points on seven-for-nine shooting. Most importantly, the Ducks, as a team, can really, really shoot the ball, which makes them dangerous against anyone.
That being said, is it likely Oregon will beat the Badgers? Probably not. Wisconsin is a #1 seed for a reason, and Oregon struggled mightily against the only truly elite team it faced this season, the Arizona Wildcats. Moreover, the Ducks simply do not have anyone who matches up well with Badger star big man Frank Kaminsky.
But if Oregon can knock down perimeter shots at a high rate, and if Young comes up big again, the Ducks will have a chance to win the game in the last few minutes. And that is all Oregon can ask for; a chance to continue its magical ride for another week.
Top photo by Kevin Cline