INDIANAPOLIS — Disappointment set in when Oregon’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against VCU was declared a no-contest Saturday.
The Ducks wouldn’t be going home like their first-round opponent VCU, which had multiple positive COVID-19 tests on its roster. But after spending days in the NCAA bubble, they desperately wanted to play. During a conditioning session Saturday night, coach Dana Altman reminded his players, “Hey, we got a game.” Oregon then scrimmaged Sunday.
The wait to begin the tournament didn’t faze the seventh-seeded Ducks, who blitzed No. 2 seed Iowa 95-80 on Monday afternoon in a second-round matchup at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Oregon scored 56 first-half points, recorded 11 3-pointers and had 10 slam dunks in one of the more complete offensive performances in recent tournament history.
The win advances Oregon to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2019 and for the fourth time in the past five NCAA Tournaments played.
“I don’t think we’ve ever scored 95 points,” said Altman, appearing in his 15th NCAA Tournament, when asked where the offensive performance ranked. “The shots were falling, the energy was going, and again, 25 assists on 38 baskets is a very good ratio. So our guys were really making plays for each other, and we got a lot of good looks because the ball was moving.”
Sharpshooting senior guard Chris Duarte (23) led four Oregon players who scored 17 points or more. The Ducks started by hitting more than 60 percent of their attempts and kept their shooting well above 50 percent throughout the game. Oregon had not played since March 12, when it lost to Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals.
The Ducks came in having won 11 of their previous 13 games.
“I said, ‘Fellas, we’ve been out for 10 days. Our advantage may be in the second half when we’re a little fresher, but that first 10 minutes, they have a big advantage. We’ve got to come out, move the ball, make plays for each other, get some easy shots,'” Altman said. “I thought the first 10 minutes was very important for us, and we handled it OK.”
Oregon was set to open the tournament against No. 10 seed VCU, which had multiple negative COVID-19 tests after arriving in the NCAA bubble until Saturday. But the NCAA declared the game a no-contest about three and a half hours before the scheduled tip-off after consulting with the Marion County Public Health Department.
“We really felt sad for VCU because we wanted to play them, but it is what it is,” Duarte said. “We can’t control that. We keep moving on to the next game.”
Oregon and Iowa both surged offensively in the first half, as the lead changed 10 times in the first 15 minutes. Altman knew Oregon would struggle with Iowa star center Luka Garza and didn’t want his team to play from behind. So he kept Duarte, forward Eugene Omoruyi and wing LJ Figueroa in the game with two fouls late in the first half.
“I told them, ‘We’ve got to be really careful here, but we can’t get behind these guys, we can’t be chasing ’em, and so we’re going to have to score with them,'” Altman said. “Those guys were a big part of our offense.”
The Ducks finished the half on a 10-0 run in the final 2:11, sparked by Figueroa (21 points, five 3-pointers). Iowa got no closer than seven points in the second half, unable to stop Oregon inside or outside. According to ESPN Stats and Information research, Oregon had nine uncontested dunks, the most of any team in the past five NCAA Tournaments.
Garza scored a season-high 36 points, but three Iowa starters — Jordan Bohannon, CJ Fredrick and Conor McCaffery — all went scoreless. Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffrey said both Fredrick and Conor McCaffery are dealing with injuries.
“We knew we are quicker than them,” Duarte said, “so we said we had to take advantage of that, and we did.
Oregon’s win continues an excellent NCAA Tournament for the Pac-12, which has yet to lose a game in the event and could send three more teams — USC, Colorado and UCLA — to the Sweet Sixteen later Monday. Both Oregon and Oregon State have made the Sweet Sixteen in the same season for the first time, as the Beavers upset Oklahoma State on Sunday and will face Loyola-Chicago this coming Saturday.
The Pac-12 is trying to end the longest drought without a national title for a power conference, as it last won a championship with Arizona in 1997.
“The Pac-12 has shown exactly how strong it was, I’m so proud of the conference,” Altman said. “Our league’s done great, and I hope we can keep it up. It would be great to have five of us all in the Sweet Sixteen. We’ve had some years that we haven’t played well in the tournament and I thought we played pretty good during the year, but the tournament didn’t prove it out. This year, we had a good conference season, but whether it’s matchups, whatever it is, our teams are playing really well.”
Iowa’s loss adds to a miserable weekend for the Big Ten, considered college basketball’s top conference during the regular season.
The Big Ten entered the tournament with two No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds, but only Michigan remains entering Monday night’s game against LSU. No league put more teams into the tournament than the Big Ten with nine, but only Michigan and Maryland are still playing.
“It’s heartbreaking, it’s so surreal, it kind of just all hit me at once, that this is the last time I’ll put on this jersey,” an emotional Garza said afterward. “That hurts a lot. I feel bad that I wasn’t able to lead this team to where it needed to go. We did a lot of really, really good things this year. It just hurts that we weren’t able to do it when it mattered most.
“That’s something that’s going to haunt me forever.”