KANSAS CITY - The sting of losing to Oklahoma in last year's West Regional finals lingered for Oregon Saturday night against Kansas in the Midwest Regional finals at the Sprint Center. The pain served as reminder to these Ducks. Motivated them. Made them stronger. Convinced them they had to do whatever was necessary to avoid such devastation from happening again.
So despite not having a key cog in senior forward Chris Boucher (knee), despite being an underdog to a No. 1 Kansas team with arguably more raw talent accustomed to destroying opponents, and despite facing the Jayhawks in an arena just 45 minutes from Kansas' campus and filled with fans wearing blue and red, the Oregon Ducks rose to the challenge and did the improbable, winning 74-60 to earn the program's first trip to the Final Four since 1939.
"Best moment ever," UO forward Jordan Bell said. "Only thing that could top this is winning the national championship."
Saturday was, without a doubt, a monumental night not only for UO's basketball program but also for the athletic department as a whole. Oregon has tasted great success in many different sports during the past two decades, but always seemed to be one step behind the major powers when it came to men's basketball.
Three times in the last 15 years (2002, 2007 and 2016) the Ducks had failed to cash in on Elite Eight appearances, including last season when the UO lost 80-68 to Oklahoma in Anaheim, Calif. Oklahoma's veteran team played with far more confidence and continuity than Oregon that night. The Ducks knew it.
"That feeling in the locker room last year knowing you were so close to the Final Four, where you wanted to get to, we don’t want to feel that again,” UO junior forward Casey Benson said.
But rather than run from that disappointment, the No. 3 Ducks (33-5) embraced it, redirected it and transformed it into rocket fuel that had them flying high with confidence all night against Kansas, shocking the 18,663 in attendance.
“That was always in the back of our minds - Oklahoma,” junior forward Dillon Brooks said.
Added Bell": “It helped us out so much."
UO coach Dana Altman sensed his team's laser-like focus following the Ducks' 69-68 win over Michigan Thursday night in the Sweet 16. It contrasted last year's reaction to defeating famed Duke in the same round.
"First of all, we felt so good after beating Duke and we patted ourselves on the backs so much that we didn't have that edge when we played Oklahoma," Altman said.
Altman saw a different demeanor from his team after a narrow victory over the Wolverines.
"I was real happy when I came in [the locker room] after the Michigan game and we weren't celebrating," Altman said. "We were focused on, we got one more game here. So I thought maybe the experience of a year ago maybe helped us."
The Ducks' defense was ferocious on Saturday. Bell had eight blocked shots and altered about a dozen others while the perimeter defenders rarely allowed good looks for Kansas, which shot 20 percent from three-point range, including 1 of 15 in the second half. The Jayhawks shot 35 percent overall.
On offense, the Ducks faced a tough defense but time after time found a way to stick a huge jumper or get a big offensive rebound which lead to 13 second-chance points.
Leading the offense's charge was sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey, who continued his amazing postseason play with 27 points on 9 of 13 shooting, including 6 of 10 from three-point range.
But this win wasn't as much about statistics as it was about how much Oregon appeared to be in command of its nerves, emotions and focus in such a hostile environment swirling with intense pressure.
The Ducks simply didn't care what the fans did, or what Kansas tried to do. And early on, they knew they could shock the college basketball world against a team that dismantled its first three NCAA Tournament opponents by a combined count of 288 to 198.
“When we were hitting shots and we were playing defense and not letting them score, we knew that it was possible,” Brooks said.
Each positive moment raised the team's confidence and put the Kansas fans into shock mode. They cheered with every sign of life from the Jayhawks only to be settled down with each Oregon response.
“As a road team, essentially, that was big," said Benson, who scored on an amazing finger roll play in the first half. "Obviously we didn’t want to let the crowd get into it.”
Helping to propel Oregon were public slights here and there.
“Guys over at CBS were saying that we’re nothing and we have no defense without Chris Boucher and we disproved that today by locking in on one of the best offensive teams in the country,” Brooks said.
This quest began immediately after last season when Bell met with Altman.
“I made a promise to coach Altman that I was going to get him to the Final Four before I left, so I had to just play my butt off,” Bell said.
His belief came from the emotions the team displayed after last season.
“I saw the players we had and the determination we had and I saw the hurt form losing last year,” Bell said. “I knew we had it.”
Brooks made the same promise to Altman.
“We wanted to win the Pac-12 and we did, then we wanted more,” Brooks said. “We got hungry. We got a little greedy.”
They got a little edgy.
No maybe about it. That experience last season brought the team together and it showed on Saturday.
“Playing for one another and playing for coach we’re going to Final Four… ” Benson said. “Coming in we were a confident bunch and we all really like each other.”