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When luck runs out: Oregon’s Final Four loss against North Carolina

GLENDALE, Ariz. — There were plenty of chances to do the improbable again.

Oregon fans had seen it happen too many times to believe the Ducks wouldn’t pull themselves together, hit a couple of clutch shots, survive and advance. Just like they had all March, and all season.

Oregon built its most successful season in 78 years on a foundation of dramatic, late-game performances. The Ducks dug themselves into trouble on a weekly basis, only to deliver a grand finale each time their luck seemed to be running out. This time, however, Oregon walked too fine a line and saw its season end on Saturday in a 77-76 loss to North Carolina at the Final Four

“We were right there even though we played a bad game,” Oregon forward Dillon Brooks said. “We were right there, but those last championship plays, we didn’t make them.”

Oregon Ducks forward Dillon Brooks puts up a shot after driving past North Carolina Tar Heels forward Luke Maye (32). The Oregon Ducks play the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Final Four at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. on Saturday, April 1, 2017. (Aaron Nelson/Emerald)

All year, the Ducks had been “right there” — one play away from a season-altering loss — and found a way to come away clean time after time. Oregon won eight games by five points or less, and won five by one possession. The Ducks’ 13.1-point scoring this season was the 10th best in the country, but it felt like an aberration.

On so many occasions, Oregon’s games came down to one or two crucial possessions. The Ducks became one of the best teams in the country at grabbing hold of those moments and bending them in their favor. A Brooks buzzer beater here, a Tyler Dorsey pull-up dagger there. The improbable started to become routine.

On Saturday, luck wasn’t enough and more predictable variables took hold. North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks, a 6-foot-10 rebounding machine built like a bulldozer, punished the Ducks for 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting. A lengthy Tar Heel defense exploited the sloppy play of the Ducks, who turned the ball over 12 times in the first half alone. Justin Jackson, North Carolina’s own version of Dillon Brooks, delivered a shot to the heart each time the Ducks were on the verge of clawing their way back in.

“They were down 10 with seven, eight minutes to go, and wouldn’t give into it,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said of the Ducks. “They’re going to look back, and it’s going to hurt because we didn’t play very well at times. And our turnovers were bad and we made some really bad decisions and quick 3s.”

Oregon’s penchant for late-game success had come through many times before Saturday.

On December 28, 2016, after a sluggish start to the season, Brooks drilled a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to upset the then-No. 3 UCLA Bruins and push Oregon back into the national conversation. The Ducks trailed the Bruins by eight with 3:32 left, but timely shots from several players left Brooks with a chance to take over the game.

A month later, Brooks hit an almost identical shot as time expired to upend the California Golden Bears in Berkeley. He also hit a game-winning shot against Tennessee in November in his first game back from a foot injury.

In March, Dorsey turned into one of the most efficient sharpshooters in the nation and drilled go-ahead 3-pointers against Rhode Island and Michigan in the NCAA Tournament to help the Ducks escape after they had trailed late in both games.

Oregon mastered the art of sidestepping late-game catastrophe during the year, but the concept of putting together 40 consistent minutes was a struggle at times. While late-game heroics made for a compelling show, that brand of basketball took its toll in Glendale.

“[The Tar Heels] definitely started getting after us,” Oregon guard Dylan Ennis said. “Their experience really set in. They’ve been here before and it definitely showed.”

For as bad as the Ducks played during the game — going strictly by the numbers, it was one of their worst showings of the year — they were still one bucket away from upstaging a loaded Tar Heels squad.

Saturday’s performance seemed to contrast every other game the Ducks played throughout the NCAA tournament. Against Kansas, the ball bounced Oregon’s way every time the Ducks needed a bucket. Against Rhode Island and Michigan, Oregon took hold of the last five minutes of each game and then left the rest to Dorsey.

Oregon Ducks guard Tyler Dorsey (5) shoots a three pointer. The Oregon Ducks play the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Final Four at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. on Saturday, April 1, 2017. (Adam Eberhardt/Emerald)

But in the second half on Saturday, every Oregon point was a struggle. Keeping pace with the Tar Heels was like carrying a boulder up a hill. While North Carolina piled up easy buckets over a gassed Oregon defense, the Ducks depended on Ennis to pinball his way to the basket and finish acrobatic layups for most of the second half.

And yet, despite recording 16 turnovers to just seven assists and shooting 7-of-26 from 3-point range, Oregon was in place to defy the odds once again. With 45 seconds left, Dorsey connected on a 3-pointer that touched every inch of the rim before rolling in. It felt like deja vu.

But for all the times they had emerged with a win after a nail-biting finish, the Ducks also lost three games during the year by three points or less. That’s the way Saturday went.

“It wasn’t on Tyler,” Oregon guard Payton Pritchard said. “Every one of us had to step up. We were down three at half. They kind of punched us in the mouth in the second half and we brought it back and gave them a fight.”

With five minutes left in regulation, North Carolina held a seven point lead. According to a win-probability metric created by basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy, that lead gave the Tar Heels an 87 percent chance of locking up a victory. Just 11 days earlier against Rhode Island, the Ducks trailed by six points at the five minute mark, and were thought to be dead in the water; that deficit left them with an 84 percent chance of losing, according to the same metric.

Instead, that game ended with Dorsey drilling a game-winning jumper to push the Ducks to the Sweet Sixteen.

Oregon knew as well as any team in the country that taking the game down to the wire could end in either brilliance or disaster. On Saturday, the Ducks’ luck finally ran out.

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Jarrid Denney

Jarrid Denney

Jarrid Denney is an associate sports editor and senior reporter at the Daily Emerald. He primarily covers the Oregon football and baseball beats. Follow along for Twitter updates @jarrid_denney.