VEGAS, The Pac-12 Tournament, March 12th --
It's the morning after, and I still can't completely grasp what I watched last night. I talked about it before Day 3 began, promising insanity and ridiculousness from the Pac-12 semifinals, but I didn't really expect a pair of games going to overtime based on final-buzzer pandemonium. It was electric! It was intense! It was random as hell and marred by officiating 'issues.' It was pure distillate of everything it means to watch Pac-12 basketball over an entire season. In essence, it lived up to the hype.
In the first game, the league champions Oregon seemed to be on the front foot for most of the action against Arizona. They closed the half on a blistering 15-2 run, capped by a final-second exclamatory dunk, and expanded their lead out to 17 points early in the second frame. But, in an effort to avoid foul trouble with their short bench, the Ducks stopped playing defense, and the Wildcats began to chip away. By the 10-minute mark, momentum had shifted, and the heavily pro-Arizona crowd was getting back into it. It would be a fight to the finish.
While the lead was shrinking, Oregon had always been able to keep the UofA at arms length. Powered by the fantastic shooting of Tyler Dorsey, the energetic attacking of Dillon Brooks, and the all-encompassing fury of Elgin Cook, they continued to put up points, and went into the final seconds with a four-point lead. Arizona's Gabe York, who struggled for much of the night against the Ducks' length on the perimeter, hucked in a desperation three that went in with only .7 seconds to play, cutting the lead to one point. Apparently too little, too late. But, the Ducks didn't call a timeout to set their inbounds play, and the wayward pass that followed went into the waiting arms of Mark Tollefsen. The refs called a foul on his resulting frantic heave, and suddenly, with an 82% free throw shooter headed to the line, Arizona was in position to flat steal their way into the final.
Tollefsen never looked comfortable headed to the line, though. With the extended review time acting as a natural freeze, he fidgeted and paced for minutes while he waited for his chance to shoot. When he finally got the ball, he fired the first free throw off to the side, forestalling an Arizona win in regulation. His second make sent the game to overtime, and the crowd was in a tizzy. The Ducks, however, are made of stern stuff, and responded like the champions they are. They dominated the extra frame, pulling away throughout. Buoyed by the return from in-game injury of Dwayne Benjamin, Oregon finally settled into a 95-89 final. An incredible, dramatic stretch of basketball.
The nightcap, featuring Utah and Cal, was just as exciting. There were 16 lead changes and nine ties; the action back-and-forth from the onset. The atmosphere in the building was a little muted, with the Arizona hordes off to drown their sorrows in booze and gambling, but the game on the court was one of the better I've seen all season. Heroes on both sides, it eventually devolved into a battle between Utah's Jakob Poeltl and Cal's Ty Wallace. Poeltl had the run of the paint, as Cal refused to double-team him down low; he would finish with 29/11. Wallace was a one-man wrecking ball, launching into the lane to open up options both for himself and others; he ended with 26/6. Eventually, after another moment of Lorenzo Bonam last-second brilliance (BuffNation knows him well from that game in Boulder this season), the Utes pushed the game to overtime, and rode Poeltl's un-checked grace to an 82-78 win.
All-in-all, I couldn't have asked for a better, more dramatic pair of games. The Pac-12 answered the bell, serving up exactly what was called for; I'm glad I was in attendance to watch. The shame of it was, as exciting as the games were, they were played either too late or on a channel no one gets, keeping most of the country from joining in. An ugly situation, the Pac-12 has purposefully sequestered themselves on a regional network of their own choosing. It is what it is.
Best pep band of the day: Utah
Why?: Utah always surprises me. As a former Mountain West program from what could be considered a "flyover state" (one that, per Trey Parker and Matt Stone, does not allow music), I just wouldn't think they'd be great off the top of my head. But they come to play. Fun, loud, brass-forward sound, built around a good tempo. Much like Arizona, they get good crowd involvement, and are quick to jump into tags and cheers after playing a standard tune. Loved my time listening to them!
I also considered Oregon, but they played "Walking on Sunshine" twice. While a good arrangement, there's no reason to play a non-fight/cheer tune twice. Expand your book!
- #2 Utah vs #1 Oregon - 8pm MT - FS1 -
Well, here we are. The final, the 'ship, the whole tamale. The tournament has been chalk the whole way. While there's been some scares for the higher seeds, and both probably should've lost last night, but a win's a win, and there's a reason this bracket has played out this way. The good news here is that it leaves us with a terrific final matchup to watch. The Ducks took both meetings this year, including an early blow-out victory in SLC. Utah is a completely different team now, however, and, on a neutral (leaning-Utah) court, things could be very different.
Real talk, the combination of Brooks and Cook is a difference maker, and I don't think Utah can answer. If UO can hold Poeltl in even a little bit of check, probably by double-teaming, then the Utes will be in big trouble. As fun as the Ducks are to watch, I cannot bring myself to root for Altman. While I think Oregon will pull it out, I'll be rooting for the Utes tonight.
GO UTES! PROVE ME RIGHT, AND TAKE THIS THING!