Oregon 74, USC 66
By the time the Oregon basketball team stepped to the stage late this afternoon to accept the Pacific-10 tournament championship, it was safe to say the Ducks didn't so much win their three games here at Staples Center this weekend as survive them.
Oregon defeated Arizona State in the first round Thursday on a buzzer-beating full-court drive and battled back from 12 points down in the second half on Friday against UCLA. But that only served as a prelude to the frantic final moments today against Southern California.
After squandering a 17-point second-half advantage, the Ducks (23-9) could only watch as a desperate Trojans team brought the game to a furious close, cutting that lead to four with two minutes to play.
USC missed its last five shots, however, and Oregon escaped with a 74-66 victory.
"It certainly battle-tested us for what's coming up next week," Oregon Coach Ernie Kent said. "To win this one . . . I thought this team did an outstanding job. We certainly feel like we're in the position where we can hopefully make a little bit of a run now."
Oregon entered the tournament on a two-game losing streak and believing it needed a win to clinch an NCAA tournament berth.
The Ducks left Los Angeles wearing championship T-shirts and carrying souvenir basketballs, safe in the knowledge that they will be in the field of 65.
But there were more than a few tense moments. One day after Oregon took advantage of a collapse by UCLA down the stretch, the Ducks struggled to put away a game they controlled. Robert Hutchinson's foul shot and Derrick Craven's jumper brought the Trojans to 70-66 with 2 minutes 21 seconds remaining.
For the Trojans (13-17), there was nothing but today to look toward.
After pulling off upsets of Stanford and California, USC was attempting to become just the 18th team to qualify for the NCAA tournament with a losing record and only the second from a major conference.
Those hopes were dashed with 1:25 left, however, when Oregon got the break it needed. Luke Ridnour, the tournament's most valuable player, missed a pull-up three-pointer, but Luke Jackson was there to bank in the rebound and put Oregon back in front 72-66. USC failed to score again.
"No one thought that we would be back here in the finals today," said USC Coach Henry Bibby, whose team lost seven games in a row at one point in the past month. "I've got to give the kids credit for working hard and they need to pat themselves on the back."
USC junior guard Desmon Farmer had a game-high 19 points, though he missed all seven shots he took after halftime and went scoreless the final 20 minutes. He was removed by Bibby, with boos directed at the coach, in the final three minutes for "not focusing on team basketball."
Oregon had four players finish in double figures as Ridnour scored a team-high 18 points and Jackson added 17. In last year's NCAA tournament, Oregon advanced to the Midwest Region final and spoke about today's title serving as a catalyst for another tournament run.
"It's starting to feel like that again," Jackson said. "We came down to L.A. trying to win this and we battled back from a couple tough games the last two [days]. And we're on a roll right now."
After the game, Ridnour was greeted with cheers of "One more year" by the Oregon fans among the 17,485 in attendance. The junior is considering forgoing his final year of eligibility to enter the NBA draft. He called his drive in the first round against Arizona State the biggest shot of his career.
With Ridnour leading the way today, the Ducks went on a 10-2 run to break open what had been a 37-35 game at halftime. James Davis capped the run with a three-pointer from the left wing. Jackson hit a long-range jumper with 12:48 left in the half that put Oregon in front 59-43.
But that only sparked the Trojans. They turned to a full-court pressure defense and Oregon fell out of rhythm as it tried to melt the clock on every possession. In the end, though, the Ducks were able to outlast USC and, ultimately, collect the championship.
"What's exciting about this that we're starting to play our best basketball toward the very end of the season," Ridnour said. "I really think we can build on this in the NCAA tournament."