Before a standing-room-only crowd at the student REC Center on Sunday, the evidence of the growth of the Oregon men’s club basketball team was on full display.
The “Fighting Ducks” — playing in the championship game of the school’s first regional tournament — took the defending champions from Gonzaga to the wire. The tournament was both a showcase of talent and a chance for the Ducks to prove themselves.
Although the Ducks lost to Gonzaga 57-47 in the title game, their montra of “together” proved true in overcoming an 18-point deficit on Saturday against Stanford to punch their ticket to face the reigning-champion Bulldogs.
“It was an unbelievable feeling knowing that we came together as a unit to overcome that big deficit,” the team’s head coach, Blake Kingsley, said.
It was almost a year ago when the team began to take shape. Of the many club sports offered at Oregon, basketball was missing. Since then, the numbers have increased — four potential players approached Kingsley last weekend alone — and the team has honed in support.
Junior Evan Gross, who was a powerful spark off the bench for the Ducks last weekend, said he knew many of his current teammates from their time playing pick-up games at the REC. But with a coach and referees, the game has grown.
“It’s nice to play organized basketball again,” Gross said. “It takes you back to the good old days of high school.”
The team will lose four seniors next year, so the effort to find younger players interested in playing will be key to its future success.
“This isn’t just a basketball team,” Kingsley said. “This is an organization or community. That doesn’t mean we just want basketball players. We want people who are interested in statistics, coaching, officiating or even graphic design to help with the uniforms. We want it to be a whole community-wide effort.”
Fresh off the jolt of the schools’s Eugene debut, the Ducks are preparing to play again this weekend. They’ll travel to Sacramento, California. A regional title there would give UO a berth to play in the national championship tournament, held annually in Ohio on April 22.
“We need to work on finishing late in games,” senior Chase Mosier, the team’s sharpshooting “go-to guy” said. “We’ve now experienced it, so time to work on it.”
Although the Ducks lost to Gonzaga, they remain focused on making more noise in their inaugural season. That means cleaning up simple mistakes like lack of communication to get on the same page.
“The great thing about our team is that we are 10 players deep,” Kingsley said. “That’s a huge strength of ours.”
Beyond this season, Kingsley looks forward to seeing how the team will grow. He points to Miguel Pobre as an example. He volunteered to be the team’s photographer and spearheaded an Instagram account that features game results and player profiles.
“That’s the kind of support and interaction that we’d like to get,” Kingsley said. “This isn’t a Division I team. This is a community team. We want to keep it that way.”
Follow Jonathan Hawthorne on Twitter @Jon_Hawthorne