USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken recaps the two Final Four semifinal games, won in nail-biters by Gonzaga and North Carolina.
USA TODAY Sports
GLENDALE, Ariz. – When the buzzer sounded, after the final incomprehensible seconds, Jordan Bell didn’t want to leave the floor. He lingered long after his teammates, watching North Carolina players celebrate a 77-76 victory. Then, finally, he headed for the exit – but didn’t get there.
He stopped at the edge of the raised court, put both hands over his face and then doubled over, crying. And moments later, in a very quiet Oregon locker room, Bell whispered:
“I know I lost this game for us.”
That’s at once far too harsh and, well, awfully hard to argue. Oregon did not play particularly well Saturday. The Ducks shot just 38 percent – missing 15 of 18 three-point attempts in the second half – committed 16 turnovers and struggled uphill the entire second half, trailing by as many as 10 points.
BOX SCORE: North Carolina 77, Oregon 76
THREE KEYS:How North Carolina got past Oregon
ON THE GLASS: Offensive rebounds save North Carolina’s season
Given everything, it was amazing the Ducks had a shot to win. Well, not quite. First, they needed to grab a rebound.
Twice in the last 5.8 seconds, North Carolina missed two free throws, giving Oregon at least a chance. But twice, the Tar Heels snagged offensive rebounds. Both came at Bell’s expense. And he knew it.
Slumped in his locker afterward, the junior forward could barely speak. Teammates and coaches had consoled him. Oregon coach Dana Altman, he said, “told me he loved me, and said it was a good season, don’t let this define my season.”
The 6-9 junior forward had a fabulous NCAA tournament, averaging 12.6 points and 13.2 rebounds. His 11-point, 13-rebound, eight-block performance six days earlier against Kansas propelled Oregon into the Final Four for the first time since 1939. And the stats didn’t begin to explain his impact; along with the blocks, he altered countless others and dissuaded the Jayhawks from even venturing into the lane on multiple occasions.
North Carolina was a different, literally much bigger challenge. Kennedy Meeks, all 6-10, 260 pounds of him scored 25 points and pulled down 14 rebounds and essentially cleaned up his teammates’ many, many missed shots. But Bell held his own, with 13 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots.
It is not a stretch to suggest Oregon would have not have reached the Final Four without Bell – especially given the loss during the Pac-12 tournament of forward Chris Boucher, which left the Ducks perilously thin on the interior and altered their defensive capabilities. Or that the Ducks would not have been close enough to North Carolina in those final seconds to need those rebounds.
“I told him, ‘Buddy, you got 16 rebounds, or we wouldn’t have been in this position,’” Altman said.
But that’s where Bell was, and how he saw it. After Keith Smith’s layup with seven seconds left pulled the Ducks within one point, Oregon quickly fouled.
Meeks missed, and then missed again. But Theo Pinson beat Bell to the ball and tapped it toward midcourt, where Joel Berry corralled it. Bell was bewildered. He’d been talking to a teammate, discussing options, and, well – “I forgot I had a job to do. … He just outjumped me.”
Berry was fouled with four seconds left, and then he somehow missed both free throws, too. This time, chastened by the previous play, Bell blocked out. But Meeks pushed him underneath the basket, then grabbed it.
“I had it,” Bell said. “He just took it from me. … I just needed to hit him. I hit him and went for (the ball) instead of holding (the box-out).”
The Ducks didn’t have a timeout left, but they had a play called. If things had gone to plan, Payton Pritchard would have raced upcourt with Tyler Dorsey trailing. Pritchard would pass. Dorsey would pop.
“I was hoping it was gonna happen,” Dorsey said. “We just didn’t box out. I would have liked to take that shot.”
On a night when the jumpers weren’t falling, it’s hard to figure Oregon’s chances of hitting one at the buzzer were very good. But Dorsey had just hit a three with 45 seconds left. And crazy shots drop in the NCAA tournament – if you get the chance to take them.
“Tyler, Dylan, Casey – somebody would’ve scored, I know it,” Bell said.
Instead, the Ducks were left to try, in the aftermath, to put a very good season into perspective.
“We made history,” junior guard Dillon Brooks said. “This is the best team the Oregon Ducks have ever had. This team will be remembered for a long time.”
That’s likely true. As was this bigger picture look from senior guard Dylan Ennis. He was sitting a couple of lockers away from Bell, and he clearly knew Bell could hear him.
“He’ll realize those two rebounds didn’t cost us the season,” Ennis said. “It’s not on him. He’s gonna look back on this in a few days, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months, and realize it wasn’t him. We all made a few mistakes we’d like to change. We wouldn’t be in this position if not for Jordan Bell. He was so big for us.”
But Saturday night, Bell was thinking only of why Oregon didn’t get its last shot.
“You play your (butt) off for the whole year, and this is the game that mattered,” he said. “This is the moment that mattered. And I didn’t do my job when it mattered.”
And he added: “It’s gonna hurt forever.”
PHOTOS: FINAL FOUR OF NCAA TOURNAMENT