Vikings show stuff, even in defeat
EUGENE — It has been nearly a decade since Portland State has been a contender for the Big Sky championship or the NCAA Tournament.
The 2017-18 Vikings have a chance to do both.
An 18-2 run near the end of the first half was the difference in Oregon's 95-84 victory over Portland State Wednesday night at Matthew Knight Arena.
Last month, the Vikings (8-3) had led then-No. 1-ranked Duke at halftime, lost to Butler by two points and knocked off Stanford at the PK80 Invitational, so they arrived in Eugene on Wednesday with some cred.
After going toe-to-toe with the defending Pac-12 champion Ducks (8-3) for most of 40 minutes — even without two of their three big men — the Vikings departed with plenty of respect from the Ducks and their partisans.
If the Vikings didn't make the Oregon players sweat, they had coach Dana Altman perspiring almost from the opening tip. He was a nervous Nellie as he paced in front of the UO bench.
"That's a very good team," Altman said afterward. "They have a bunch of seniors who know how to play. We knew we had our work cut out for us. Those guys can score."
First-year coach Barret Peery's Vikings did that in bunches, especially Deontae North and Bryce Canda — both 6-4 seniors. North scored 18 of his 23 points in the first half; Canda had 26 of his career-high 31 points after intermission.
But those two didn't have enough help, especially without a pair of rotation players — starting center Traylin Farris, a 6-8 senior (ankle), and reserve forward Brendan Rumel, a 6-10 sophomore (hip).
"We missed them a ton," said Peery, who came to Portland State after serving a year as Herb Sendek's lead assistant at Santa Clara. "Tonight was one of those games where you have to have those big bodies just to rebound. When you're missing two guys on the back line, it hurts you."
Even so, the smaller Vikings went to the boards early, leading the rebound battle 13-6 midway through the first half. But the Ducks outboarded their opponent 37-22 the rest of the way.
"They have so much length," Peery said. "That's a big part of who they are, with that length and athleticism. They have a different team than they've had the last couple of years, but that's a good team over there. Coach Altman has done a good job."
The Ducks couldn't shake the Vikings until the final minutes. Oregon started 4 for 4 from the field — all 3's — and still led only 12-10. The Ducks hit 13 of first 22 shots from the field, yet trailed 35-32 with less than seven minutes remaining in the first half.
Then it went south for the Vikings, who were outscored 18-2 over a six-minute span, going 0 for 8 with three turnovers. They went into halftime trailing 50-39.
That could have been it for the Viks, but they didn't fold.
They went to the full-court press for the entire 20 minutes of the second half, and wound up forcing Oregon into a season-high 18 Oregon turnovers and outscoring the Ducks 29-4 in points off turnovers for the game.
"A lot of times, it's like you're almost playing against four defenders — the sidelines and three guys all over you," said Elijah Brown, the southpaw senior guard who led Oregon with 22 points.
Said Peery: "We got to them. We got into them and changed how they wanted to play."
For a long spell in the second half, Peery went with the 6-4 Canda and North along with 6-foot Holland "Boo Boo" Woods, 5-10 Deonte Strickland and 6-6 Brandon Hollins. That's a decent-sized high school team, but you don't see it at the Division I college level very often.
Still, the Vikings gradually chipped away at the deficit. Canda — 0 for 6 from the field, including 0 for 4 from 3-point range, in the first half — was smoking, hitting 9 of 15 shots and 5 of 7 3-pointers in the second half. Canda's three-point play trimmed Oregon's lead to 72-70 with 6:37 left.
The Ducks scored seven points in a row to go ahead 79-70, though, and the Viks never get it closer than six points the rest of the way.
"Bryce bounced back and had a monster second half, and our guys found their energy and life," Peery said. "Late in the first half, we were a little bit shaken by how poorly we shot the ball, and ended up taking some tough shots trying to hit home runs.
"But I was proud of how we came back and made it a game. We gave ourselves a chance to win."
Portland State wound up shooting only .378 from the field, but was .382 from 3-point range (13 for 34) and took 10 more attempts from the field than Oregon (74 to 64).
"They're trying to kill me," Altman said afterward through a wry grin, the reference to his players. "Turnovers. Bad decisions. There are things that we really have to tighten up. We can't make those kind of plays.
"We were outscored 41-12 in points off turnovers and second-chance points and still won. That's unusual, but we had 27 assists (on 32 baskets), our (shooting) percentages were good (.500 from the field and .407 from 3-point range) and we outrebounded them after slow start. There were positives. But we missed a bunch of layups in the second half, and we have to play a lot smarter."
Point guard Payton Pritchard, the sophomore from West Linn, had nifty numbers with 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, despite going more than 16 minutes of the second half without a point. The best thing about Oregon's performance, however, was the continued growth of prize freshmen Troy Brown and Kenny Wooten. Brown, a 6-7 starting small forward from Las Vegas, finished an assist shy of the program's first triple-double in 15 years (last one: Luke Jackson in 2002) with 10 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists (along with six turnovers).
"Troy's able to impact the game in so many ways," Elijah Brown said. "If his shot's not falling, he finds other ways. He's an all-around player.
"I messed up his triple-double by missing a layup near the end. I feel bad. I'm going to go upstairs and get some layups in."
Even more impressive Wednesday night was Wooten, a 6-8 power forward from Manteca, California, who comes off the bench — at least for now. Wooten was a force at both ends, scoring 18 points on 8-for-8 shooting with five rebounds and six blocked shots in 24 minutes. Of course, it's easier to go 8 for 8 when you get six dunks, as the pogo-legged Wooten — of the same ilk as Jordan Bell or Chris Boucher — did against the Viks.
"Kenny has a ridiculous ability to come from the weak side and block shots, and he's going to finish all those dunks inside," Elijah Brown said. "You saw a little bit of what he has tonight."
Canda showed a little something, too, after a shaky first half.
"I let the big stage, the lights get to me a little bit," the Grant High grad said. "I'm from (Oregon), so I wanted to put on a good performance in front of a lot of people who were here watching. After I got all those misses and mistakes out of the way, we regrouped as a team, got back focused, and the guys picked me up and got me back on the right path.
"We showed a lot of toughness, a lot of heart. We didn't back down. (The Ducks) are a good Pac-12 team. They're going to go to the (NCAA) tournament every year. Good coach; good players. But we didn't let that affect us."
This should be the best Portland State team since Ken Bone took the Vikings to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in 2007-08 and 2008-09, winning the Big Sky the first year and winning the season-ending conference tournament while going 23-10 both years.
Portland State was 15-16 overall and 7-11 in Big Sky play last season under Tyler Geving. During Geving's seven-year run, the Viks were always respectable but never a challenger for a conference title.
Peery took some players from Geving's team of a year ago — North, Canda, Farris, Hollins, Michael Mayhew and Rumel — and added such as point guards Woods and Strickland and 6-7 junior Jamie Orme. These Vikings have quickness and athleticism, shoot the long ball well and have pretty much a green light. Perry never blinks when a player casts up a questionable shot from deep.
"There are always going to be questionable shots here and there," Peery said. "Once it's over, next shot is best shot. I don't ever want guys looking over their shoulder. I coach shot selection in practice. Then we try to take those things to the game. You're not going to fix things like that unless you sit somebody on the bench."
Peery has connected well to his players, including Canda, who came to PSU last year after a transfer from Central Wyoming JC and is on his fourth head coach in four seasons.
"I couldn't end my collegiate career under a better coach," Canda said. "This has been a good turnaround for us. The energy and enthusiasm and excitement he brings to to the team is a change for us in a good way. We needed that.
"He always has our back. He pushes. He knows what we can bring to the table. We know what we're going to get from him. We have to give it right back."
Woods, a freshman from Phoenix, had committed to Portland State while Geving was head coach.
"After (Geving was fired), I was waiting and waiting," said Woods, who was Big Sky Player of the Week last week. "Then I heard it was Coach Peery. I didn't know anything about him. He called me at 3 a.m. one night and said, 'Hey Boo, I'm your new coach.' I thought someone was messing with me.
"But as soon as we talked, I knew we were going to mesh right away. When I came in, he had faith in me from the beginning. He never made it like I was a freshman. He treats me like I'm a senior. I've loved it from the beginning."
It's going to be an interesting season for the Vikings, and not just with the transition from Geving to Peery. With the construction of the new Viking Pavilion underway, home games have been moved to Lewis & Clark. Whatever homecourt advantage the Viks might have had this season is all but gone.
But they showed again Wednesday they have a chance to be pretty good.
Said Peery: "I just told the team, 'You're on the road in the Pac-12. Most of the teams in that league will lose here this season. There's nothing to be ashamed of.' We'll never dial into moral victories, but we're playing good ball. We have a good team. I like our group. A lot."