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Ducks damage bubble teams by winning Pac-12 tourney — PHOTOS

Updated March 16, 2024 - 10:29 pm

A group of Ducks fans in the corner of T-Mobile Arena erupted in jubilation as the clock ticked down on Oregon’s 75-68 victory over Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament championship game Saturday night.

Their cheers still weren’t enough to drown out the groans from faraway places like Charlottesville, Virginia; South Orange, New Jersey; and Terre Haute, Indiana.

The surprising run by the fourth-seeded Ducks to a conference championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament is likely to take a bid away from either Virginia, Seton Hall or Indiana State.

The Ducks came to Las Vegas knowing they needed three wins in three days to make that happen, which seemed like a tall task for a team that hadn’t won three straight games since early January.

“Belief,” Oregon guard Jermaine Couisnard said of his team’s mindset. “That’s the word, belief. We knew what we had to do coming down here. We knew we had to win three straight. Everybody had to just put everything aside and do whatever it took for us to get the win.”

Oregon (23-11) will be in the bracket largely because of the heroics of N’Faly Dante, who made all 12 of his shots from the field and finished with 25 points, nine rebounds and three steals.

Though he was only credited with one block, his presence on the defensive end impacted the Buffaloes throughout the game. He was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

“He got in that foul trouble, but when he was on the floor, we were plus-21,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “He’s a presence defensively, and then their defense has to pay so much attention to him because they know if we get him the ball one-on-one he’s shooting 68 percent so he puts so much pressure on the defense. He’s just such a difference-maker.”

It’s the sixth time Oregon has won the Pac-12 tournament and first since 2019. The Ducks have won the tournament four times since it has been in Las Vegas, though there was a bittersweet element to the victory as it will go down as the final Pac-12 basketball tournament.

“It hurts,” said Altman, whose team will move to the Big Ten. “We won the first one here in 2013 when it moved to Vegas, and we’re winning the last one here in Vegas. Vegas has been really good to us. I’m going to miss that. So part of me is really sad that this is not going to be here.

“I’m really going to miss the Pac-12.”

Third-seeded Colorado (24-10), which will move to the Big 12, is still likely to earn an at-large berth, but the Buffaloes were seeking just their second Pac-12 tournament title and first in Las Vegas.

Coach Tad Boyle stated his case to the selection committee during a postgame news conference.

“But it doesn’t really matter what I think, quite frankly,” he said. “All that matters is what that committee thinks. I look at our metrics. I look at these guys, and there’s no doubt in my mind this is an NCAA Tournament team. I’ve known that from day one. We had some hiccups and injuries along the way, but hopefully they’ll look at the whole body of work and recognize we’re one of the best of — what is it, 37 at-large teams? I can’t think of 36 or 37 better than us. But that’s for them to decide, not for me to decide.”

Colorado had a chance to take it out of the committee’s hands right up to the last few minutes, when a decisive run by the Ducks propelled them to victory.

Jackson Shelstad made a pair of free throws with 3:23 remaining to break a tie, and Kwame Evans Jr. came up with a steal that Jadrian Tracey converted on the other end with a baseline drive to the rim for a layup.

The teams then traded baskets in the lane before Dante altered a pair of shots on the next possession and then secured a rebound, following it up on the offensive end with a tip-in bucket at the rim.

The Ducks made free throws from there and got enough stops to punch their ticket into the NCAA field.

“This is a tough group,” Altman said. “They fought back against UCLA, they fought back against Arizona (earlier in the tournament). It’s just a tough, tough group led by a big stud in Dante.”

It looked early like they were worn out after surviving narrow wins over the Bruins and No. 6 Wildcats in the first two rounds, but Oregon was able to grab a 33-30 lead at the break after mounting a late first-half rally.

The Ducks jumped out to a quick start, but went into a funk when Dante, a first-team all-league center, picked up his second foul with 14:30 remaining and went to the bench.

Colorado responded with a 13-0 run to take its biggest lead at 20-11.

Altman sensed the game slipping away and put Dante back in. The Ducks responded minutes later with a 12-2 run and went into the locker room on a high note when Shelstad hit a jumper in the final seconds of the first half.

Shelstad finished with 17 points, and Couisnard had 14 points and eight assists in the win.

Simpson posted 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists for the Buffaloes, but Luke O’Brien was the only other Colorado player in double figures.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on X.

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