SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Ducks were flying high going into halftime. A Payton Pritchard- Paul White fueled offense had the Ducks up 35-21, but a defensive lapse let UC Irvine grab a basket before the buzzer.
The Anteaters took that momentum into the locker room and turned it into a 14-0 run in the first five minutes and 32 seconds of the second half. The Ducks were drowning in open water, and the basket was shrinking.
Oregon seemed to have resorted back to its pre-March play, where five-plus minute scoring droughts were common. Shots weren’t falling and the defense wasn’t great.
“They just came out scorching,” senior forward White said. “They were hitting the right angles. They were hitting the right shots. It was some miscommunication on us on defense. They did a good job of calling the right plays at the right time.”
Then senior guard Ehab Amin subbed back in with 14 minutes and 10 seconds left and everything changed for the better.
“I think for us, things really picked up when Ehab checked into the game,” White said. “We just kind of took off from there.”
Amin, a 31.3 percent 3-point shooter, ended the second-half shut-out a minute later with a 3-pointer, which retook the lead and gave the Ducks the life preserver they needed. Once that shot went in, the Ducks never looked back, outscoring UC Irvine 35-17 to win 73-54 and clinch a spot in the Sweet 16 against Virginia.
“This team, the way they fought back this year, it shows our resiliency,” Pritchard said. “Again in this game, we just don’t give up, we don’t give in.”
Once confidence was found, the fun on the court spread like wildfire. An onslaught of great defense led by Amin, highlight-reel Kenny Wooten plays, knockdown shooting from Louis King and an all-around great performance from Pritchard began.
The five on the court began to do what they do best, with giant smiles on their faces the entire time.
“It’s really just everybody being happy for each other,” Pritchard said. “Now we are truly excited for each other. Before it might have been more fake. Now it’s like we’re all in because we want to win. The excitement comes and the confidence comes after that.”
The Ducks were flying higher than they have all season, and you could see it on the players’ faces.
King showed his swagger as he netted three 3-pointers in the second half. Pritchard showed his talent with 10 points, four assists and three rebounds in the second half alone.
The Ducks savored every moment as they put the game further out of reach.
“We’re just celebrating throughout the game, and we really shouldn’t, but we tend to do that a lot, and our coach gets mad at us for it,” Wooten said. “We’re just excited to continue to play.”
This team, that was written off by everyone when they fell to 6-8 in Pac-12 play, is not only the lone Pac-12 school remaining, they are one of the final 16 teams alive.
“We’ve been fighting adversity all year,” head coach Dana Altman said. “To turn it on here at the end, and have a little fun, it was good.”
Although Sunday’s victory was sweet, sights are set on something much bigger, a win versus No. 1 seed Virginia in Louisville.
“I’m happy to be in the Sweet 16,” King said. “I’m happy to be one of the last 16 standing, but we’re not done yet.”
Follow Maverick Pallack on Twitter @mavpallack