Unforgettable run, unfinished business
Sure, there will be some lamenting.
The 19 Houston offensive rebounds. The nine missed free throws. The eight first-half turnovers, and the only two turnovers of the second half coming in crunch time.
When a dream run ends the way it did for the Oregon State men's basketball team, it's only natural to ask the what-ifs.
After winning six consecutive times when a loss would have ended their season, the Beavers, a 12th seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, lost to Houston 67-61 on March 29 in the regional final game.
Thus ended one of the great sports stories this region has experienced. A team picked to finish last in the Pac-12 before the season came up just short of the Final Four, a thrilling run that was built on togetherness, resiliency and a lot of smart basketball.
The poise and tenaciousness Oregon State demonstrated throughout its special run was on display again against Houston. Down and apparently out when they trailed 34-17 at halftime, the Beavers didn't flinch. They found a way to attack the tough Cougars' defense, to keep Houston from grabbing every loose rebound and methodically worked their way back to even.
When Gianni Hunt banked in the tying 3-pointer with 3:48 remaining, it felt for a brief moment like the magic ride was on its way to the Final Four. After all, the Beavers were incredibly poised, confident and focused down the stretch of their previous six must-win games.
Alas, Houston kept its cool and made the big plays down the stretch.
"I think we got off to a pretty slow start, but in the back of our minds we knew that a run was coming for sure," senior guard Ethan Thompson said. "I've been saying it this whole time, this team is full of competitors and winners, and at the end of the day we want to do everything we can to win, and tonight just wasn't our night."
Given that the Beavers were 11-11 including a loss to the WCC's worst team, their climb to the brink of a Final Four was a surprise.
On the other hand, a guy like Thompson is the kind of college basketball rarity capable of changing a season. Thompson started all 127 games the Beavers played during his career, a notable run in any era but particularly valuable in the transfer portal era.
Coaches control the direction of programs by establishing expectations and recruiting the right players. But when special things like this Beavers' run happen, it's usually because players are the ones demanding and getting commitment from each other. Led by fourth-year Beavers Thompson and Zach Reichle, who played in 125 career games, OSU had the kind of buy-in needed for special results.
"Just so proud of the fight we showed," Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle said. "But for making a few more free throws and getting some rebounds, it could've been a different story. It was right there within our grasp with the effort we showed in the second half to get back and tie this thing up."
Tinkle said he didn't sugarcoat his postgame message to his team after the loss to Houston.
"It was a helluva run, but I talked about the breakdown of trust when we needed it most," the coach said. "We had a couple of turnovers, a couple of ill-advised shots, but the overwhelming theme — and, again, the assistant coaches and all of us really rewarded the guys with their efforts on this season."
Those efforts raise the profile of a program that has not been a consistent winner since Ralph Miller retired in 1989. Tinkle, who has said he believed the 2019-20 Beavers were on course for a postseason run before the tournaments were canceled, deserves credit for building a program that now will be viewed differently. He also deserves credit for making smart in-game adjustments and putting his players in positions to succeed.
Tinkle noted that a run like this changes the national perception of the program. It helps, too, that the Pac-12's success changes the perception of the conference.
"We have people emailing and texting us now. I think it's going to open up a lot of those (recruiting) doors," Tinkle said.
"We're just going to continue to build," the coach continued. "Even though we had this tremendous success, it's not going to change who we are. Even when we had the low lows. It didn't change who we were. We just continue to grind and do things the way that we do them, and we know it's going to lead to even greater things."
In the aftermath of Monday's loss, there was the understandable disappointment. But, there also was big-picture perspective at the end of a 20-11 season.
"We showed amazing heart, fight, and we got every ounce out of this group that we could, and it's a credit to them." Tinkle said. "It's a credit to our staff. And then all those that never quit on us."
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