INDIANAPOLIS – Oregon weaved its way through a pandemic-altered season filled with injuries, pauses and uncertainty to win a conference title.
When another kink surfaced in the NCAA Tournament, the resilient, adaptable Ducks shook it off and soared.
Off to another Sweet 16.
Chris Duarte scored 23 points and Oregon showed no signs of rust after a long layoff, beating No. 2 seed Iowa 95-80 on Monday to reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the past five NCAA Tournaments.
“The guys fought through it, they stayed together,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “I’m proud of the way they responded.”
The seventh-seeded Ducks (21-6) were put in an unprecedented spot, advancing to the West Region’s second round without playing a game. Virginia Commonwealth’s multiple positive COVID-19 tests took care of that, leaving Oregon with a nine-day break since losing in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals.
Oregon’s offense hummed like it was fresh off the line once the ball went up, kicking off the NCAA Tournament’s first Monday of second-round games with a masterpiece.
The Ducks flowed on the floor and glowed on the scoresheet, shooting 56% and hitting 11 3-pointers. LJ Figueroa hit five 3s while scoring 21 points and Will Richardson added 19 points in an offensive domination.
Oregon will play Pac-12 rival Southern California in the Sweet 16.
“We just said keep our foot on the gas,” Duarte said. “We did and it was a lot of fun.”
The Ducks’ sweet offensive movements left the Hawkeyes (22-9) flailing, one game short of the Sweet 16 for the fourth time under Fran McCaffery.
Luka Garza played like a two-time All-American, bulling in for three-point plays, hitting mid-range jumpers and dropping in the occasional 3. He capped his stellar college career by tying the Iowa NCAA Tournament record with 36 points and grabbing nine rebounds before receiving a nice ovation from the limited crowd allowed in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Joe Wieskamp added 17 points, but the rest of the Hawkeyes weren’t of much help to the big fella, sending them out of the bracket early with other top seeds Illinois, Ohio State and Texas.
“It’s heartbreaking, so surreal, it kind of hit me all at once that this is the last time I’ll put on this jersey and that hurts a lot,” Garza said. “I feel bad that I wasn’t able to lead this team to where it needs to go.”
The Ducks managed to navigate a difficult season full of pauses and injuries to win their second straight Pac-12 regular-season title.
Oregon earned a No. 7 seed in Indianapolis and faced what was expected to be a difficult opener against VCU and its Havoc defense. But the Ducks learned during their pregame meal that they would advance without playing a game, leaving them with a huge break before facing the No. 2 team in the region.
Nerves? Rusty? Nope.
The Ducks went on the attack from Richardson’s opening layup and used quick ball movement to set up open looks throughout the first half.
Oregon hit seven 3s – two by Figueroa late – made 22 of 37 shots and used a 10-0 run to lead 56-46 at halftime despite having three players in foul trouble.
“The shots were falling, the energy was going,” Altman said. “Our guys were making plays for each other and we were getting a lot of good looks because the ball was moving.”
The biggest problem was stopping Iowa’s best player.
Garza had 12 points in the first seven minutes, even with Oregon shading a defender toward him in the post, and 20 by halftime. He shook off the smaller Ducks bouncing off him as he hit 8 of 10 shots and the lone 3 he attempted.
The Ducks kept soaring on offense and swarmed Garza with double teams in the second half, stretching the lead to 76-57 to all but put it out of reach.
“It’s a hard team to cover in so many different ways,” McCaffery said. “We tried man, zone, press with moderate success – not enough.”
Oregon was considered one of the bracket’s most dangerous middle seeds and sure showed why against Iowa. The Ducks will be tough to oust the rest of the tournament if they keep playing like this.
Iowa had one of the best players in college basketball but still found itself short of the Sweet 16. Garza will have his No. 55 retired after the season, but he will be missing a 16 on his resume.
Every team needs a player who does a little bit of everything and isn’t afraid to do the dirty work.
Eugene Omoruyi is that player for Oregon.
The physical 6-foot-6 Canadian had a superb all-around game, finishing with 17 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals, two blocked shots and lots of grit.
“Eugene’s our most physical player,” Altman said. “He battled his tail off in there despite giving up 5, 6 inches and 20-something pounds.”