LAS VEGAS — Oregon’s path to the NCAA Tournament, once a treacherous climb through the narrowest of passages, suddenly became oh-so-simple.
The Ducks have one game. Win it and they’re in.
And you know what? I’m not betting against them.
Not after watching them scratch and claw their way into the Pac-12 Tournament final with a 79-75 overtime victory against Arizona State.
Have you seen that movie “Free Solo” about the guy who climbs mountains without any ropes? That’s how it felt watching the Ducks on Friday night. At times they were holding on by their fingernails. At times you thought they might plunge to their death.
Somehow they kept climbing. And now they’re almost at the mountaintop, which in their case is a Pac-12 Tournament championship and a No. 11 seed on Selection Sunday.
Friday’s win was all heart and guts. Arizona State was the fresher team and had Oregon on the ropes multiple times. Kenny Wooten was in foul trouble the entire game and played only 15 minutes before fouling out early in overtime.
And yet, the Ducks kept digging deeper. Ehab Amin, a guy who struggled all season to find a role, played the game of his life. Running on fumes after playing 80 minutes in two nights, Payton Pritchard came up with clutch shot after clutch shot.
Here, at last, was the madness we’d been craving from this Pac-12 Tournament. This tournament had been notably short on compelling games and thrilling finishes, but the Ducks and Sun Devils packed a whole week’s worth of that into 45 minutes.
Oregon ambushed the Sun Devils in the first half and built an early double-digit lead. Arizona State battled back and seemed to have the Ducks sucking wind midway through the second half.
“About the 12-minute mark, we were dragging a little bit,” coach Dana Altman said.
Tip your cap to Amin, who scored 13 points and came up with some of the biggest hustle plays of the game in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a 3-pointer from the right corner that tied the game with 1:34 remaining.
“Amin’s shot in the right corner was a huge turning point in the game,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said.
Amin hasn’t had the season he envisioned when he transferred to Oregon from Texas A&M Corpus-Christi. But he got a great moment Friday night, making the circuit for postgame interviews and posing for selfies on the court with Phil Knight.
“As a senior, it was really emotional for me,” Amin said. “I just was super happy and excited.”
After the game, Hurley was adamant that the Sun Devils belong in the NCAA Tournament, and I agree. Beating Kansas and Utah State and finishing second in the Pac-12 should be enough.
What about the Ducks? Their resume probably won’t get them in the field as an at-large selection, but the way they’re playing right now, you’d be hard pressed to say they’re not one of the top 68 teams in the country.
“Last month, things did look a little bit bleak, but in our locker room we never counted ourselves out,” senior Paul White said.
You’d be crazy to count them out Saturday night against Washington, either. I’m not sure where they’ll find the energy to play another game, but with everything at stake, I’m pretty sure they’ll find a way.
If they beat Huskies, the Ducks can forget about the NET rankings and Quadrant 1 victories and all the other complicated bracket math. Now their season has been reduced to a beautifully simple equation.
One win, and the Ducks are in the NCAA Tournament.