Beavers, Ducks on a Sweet 16 roll
A year ago, when there were no NCAA basketball tournaments, we knew we were missing one of the more compelling events on the sports calendar.
Around here, the cancellation of the 2020 tournaments was particularly painful because we lost the chance for Oregon's special seniors to make a run at a NCAA women's basketball championship that would have come through Moda Center.
We'll never know what other magic might have happened. For example, Wayne Tinkle believed his Oregon State men's team, led by his senior son Tres, was ready for a special 2020 postseason.
Fast forward 12 months and the world still isn't anywhere close to normal. But Tinkle's Beavers are reminding the world why few things capture the human spirit the way sports can, headlining an impressive show from the Pac-12 that has both Oregon State and Oregon in the Sweet 16.
Two weeks ago, the 2020-21 Oregon State men's basketball team was 16 points behind UCLA in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament — a game they had to win to extend their season.
Now, the Beavers (19-12) are two wins away from a Final Four, beginning with an 11:40 a.m. Saturday game against Loyola of Chicago.
Who's to doubt them now?
The Beavers themselves sure won't.
As senior Ethan Thompson said after the Beavers turned back Oklahoma State in the second round on Sunday, this run is built on contributions up and down the roster.
The Cinderella tag isn't completely unfair. This is a team that played a bunch of close games, but also a few bad ones — losses to the University of Portland, Wyoming, and a blowout loss to Arizona come to mind.
But we can't see behind the curtain. We could see Thompson's leadership and ability to get to the foul line. We understand the significance of the kind of experience Thompson and Zach Reichle have in the program. We saw Warith Alatishe's athleticism and determination on the boards. We knew Jarod Lucas could flat-out shoot.
But, who saw the Beavers' big men — particularly Roman Silva, who averages less than six points and three rebounds a game — becoming consistent monsters in the paint? Who predicted players such as Maurice Calloo, Dearon Tucker and Tariq Silver would be ready to make meaningful plays and timely shots off the bench?
Not this guy.
But, inside Tinkle's program, years of commitment generated unseen buy-in. As the coach noted after Calloo scored 15 huge points in the first half against his former team in the win over Oklahoma State, the 6-10 junior could have checked out when he lost his starting spot after that embarrassing loss to Arizona in January.
Thompson has enjoyed some big moments and endured his share of disappointing outcomes in four seasons as a starter for Tinkle. He said the early losses that made this team look so vulnerable actually contributed to its strength — particularly when in situations like Oklahoma State's late run that cut OSU's 18-point lead to two.
"I'll take the tough losses early (in the season), because I think it taught us a lot of lessons on how to close out games, and now we're closing out games at the right time."
• Without a doubt, this Oregon State run is big for Beavers' fans and former players. But Tinkle emphasized that it is also about earning respect for the under-appreciated Pac-12.
He noted that competing in the Pac-12 helped prepare the Beavers for Oklahoma State's quickness and pressure defense.
"We've got some talented, talented teams in our league and we're putting people on notice," Tinkle said. "I'm very happy for our program, but I'm extremely happy for the Pac-12 Conference. Maybe now we'll get some damn respect."
• Oregon (21-6) did its part in raising the Pac-12's profile, scoring 95 points and running away from No. 2-seed (and eighth-ranked) Iowa on Monday morning.
On Sunday, the Ducks, in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the last five NCAA tourneys, will face Pac-12 rival USC after the Trojans routed Kansas 85-51.
Given the way the rest of the Pac-12 has played — four teams reached the Sweet 16 and the conference is a combined 9-1 in this tournament entering the weekend — the Ducks' 95-80 win over Iowa in the second round should not have surprised. They were the Pac-12 regular-season champions, after all. And, what at the time seemed like a surprising loss to the Beavers in the Pac-12 semifinals, was unquestionably a "quality" loss.
After Oregon got a free pass into the second round because of VCU's COVID-19 issues, I wondered if the Ducks would be rusty, shaky or sleepy (9 a.m. PT tip). There was none of that. With seniors Chris Duarte, Eugene Omoruyi and LJ Figueroa desperate to keep dancing, and with Will Richardson continuing to play at a high level, they started fast and didn't slow down.
Luka Garza, the two-time All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year, got his numbers with 36 points and nine rebounds. But Oregon won the hustle plays, equaling the Hawkeyes on the boards and forcing one of the nation's most efficient offenses into 12 turnovers and 46% shooting.
• The Pac-12 is certainly respected in women's basketball, where it is the deepest league in the country.
The Oregon State women did their part to remind folks of that by walloping Florida State 83-59 in the first round of that tournament on Sunday in Texas.
Because of deadlines, the results of the Oregon women's first-round game on Monday and Oregon State's battle with top seed South Carolina on Tuesday are not in print editions of this column. Check out http://www.portlandtribune.com for updates.
Like the OSU men, the Oregon State women's team has gotten significantly better late in the season. Those who have followed Scott Rueck's program aren't surprised.
Tinkle said one of the key similarities between the two OSU basketball programs is: "Don't cut corners. You just outwork people."
In OSU's win over Florida State, that effort showed up on the boards where the Beavers earned a 43-26 advantage.
Rueck said rebounding and real defensive focus was an "acquired taste" for this OSU team and that the commitment to rebounding and defense are the reasons the Beavers have hit a stride.
• Oregon's size was too much for South Dakota as the No. 6-seeded Ducks took control early in a Monday first-round 67-47 win. The Ducks will face No. 3-seed Georgia on Wednesday.
Oregon's defense was impressive in the first half, holding South Dakota to nine points. Oregon shot 60% and got 22 points from senior Erin Boley. But with freshman point guard Te-Hina Paopao still injured, the Ducks committed 22 turnovers — sloppiness that could be costly against a Georgia team that prides itself on defense.
• Shantay Legans, who guided Eastern Washington to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament this season, will be the next coach of the Portland Pilots. He replaces Terry Porter, who was let go midway through this season, his fifth as the UP coach.
Legans, 39, has spent the last 12 seasons at EWU, the last four as head coach. In those four seasons the Eagles had a .605 winning percentage, including a Big Sky-best .726 in conference. They rolled to the Big Sky tournament title this season and led Kansas in the second half of their first-round tournament loss to the Jayhawks.
The Pilots struggled mightily in the West Coast Conference under Porter, and Portland Vice President for Athletics Scott Leykam listed recruiting, player retention and player development as three key skills he was seeking in his next coach.
In a statement announcing the hire, Leykam said Legans expressed a strong belief that UP has the potential to be successful in men's hoops.
"We were especially impressed with his ability to install a strong team culture, emphasize the importance of academic success and develop his student-athletes both on and off the floor," Leykam said.
• The Portland women narrowly missed a postseason championship, losing to Cleveland State 67-64 in the title game of the Women's Basketball Invitational, an eight-team tournament in Frankfort, Kentucky.
Portland had never won a postseason game before beating Abilene Christian and Northern Arizona to reach the championship game.
Sunset High grad Maddie Mulheim, a Portland senior, had seven steals and 13 points in the final game.
In Michael Meek's second season, the Pilots finished 14-12. They expect to return 10 players next season, including West Coast Conference first-team selections Haylee Andrews and Alex Fowler and WCC all-freshman selection Emme Shearer.
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