Correction: A previous version of this story said the 1939 Final Four took place near Chicago.
KANSAS CITY, MO. — Surely Oregon’s first Final Four team never envisioned the heap of inconveniences that threatened the second. That ancient national champion won its 1939 regional final on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay; Oregon won its second on Saturday evening amid a great wall of Kansan sound only 40 miles from the Kansas campus. Those bygone Ducks had to win one game to reach the final four teams, while 78 years on, these psychedelic Ducks had to win three games and then still submit a virtuoso feat in Sprint Center against a rampaging No. 1 seed.
As they head to a far louder Final Four in Greater Phoenix, the Ducks (33-5) will know their 74-60 win in the Midwest Regional final came despite the highest degree of difficulty in the whole first 62 games of the NCAA tournament. They will know they cobbled together one of the better cases of defusing in the record books of Madness, treating as some sort of equal a home team that had blasted its way here with 100, 90 and 98 points in three games, and treating that team’s rapt fans to a case of queasiness they have come to know well this decade.
By quelling Kansas’ frenetic pace without becoming plodding, Oregon sent about 18,000 into the downtown streets bummed, while its 600-odd fans kept up their bouncing bliss of resistance.
That left a weird, hollowed-out, post-game trophy celebration in which Oregon Coach Dana Altman said, “Now that the place is a little empty, I’m really happy first of all for a great group of players.” He soon added, “Nineteen thirty-nine is a long time.”
Those players, a No. 3 seed with the rare Elite Eight experience of entering an arena to supermajority boos, not only gifted their 58-year-old coach in his seventh Oregon season and his 28th at the helm of four programs with his first Final Four. They not only joined Gonzaga as the first Final Four qualifiers from the Pacific Time Zone since 2008 as they moved to a national semifinal against some basketball kingdom, either North Carolina or Kentucky. No, they did all of this even after the season-ending knee injury, only 15 days prior, to 6-foot-10 senior mainstay Chris Boucher.
Of course, at times, as Altman noted, the 6-foot-9 man left to man the middle, Jordan Bell, looked like there were two of him.
“I can’t overemphasize,” Altman said. “Jordan controlling the paint for the first 10 minutes of the game and just putting the thought in their minds that they weren’t going to get easy baskets.”
“We sent the guards to Jordan,” teammate Tyler Dorsey said, “and he was cracking down.”
“Just being a tough team overall,” Bell said.
That started from the get-go of the get-go, after 10 seconds of play. A Kansas program that won its 13th straight Big 12 regular season title, spent chunks of the season at No. 1 and ransacked three NCAA tournament opponents by 38, 20 and 32 points, started off Saturday with Josh Jackson’s drive toward the basket from the right. Bell swatted away that, on his way to a near triple-double with 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks .
Oregon spent the first 25 minutes expertly crafting a 55-37 lead, spending a first half of acrobatic plays running lovely fast breaks, making hard-to-make shots and practicing sound ideas generally. It kept hold of its oxygen when Kansas (31-5), with its penchant for outrageous comebacks this season, lurked within six with 2:49 left, which Oregon weathered with audacious three-point shots from its March maestro, Tyler Dorsey, one with 6:39 left and one at 1:51, all part of Dorsey’s doubtless 27 points. It got 17 adamant points and several taunts of the fans from Dillon Brooks. It “shared the ball really well,” in the view of Frank Mason III, the Jayhawks’ senior floor commander, who tried to counter with his 21 points. And it left Kansas with a messy array of 25 three-point tries, 20 missed.
“The one thing that did happen today, and it’s hard to admit, the best team did win today,” said Kansas Coach Bill Self, citing Oregon’s aggression. He also cited two timbers of that aggression that came just before halftime and “certainly put a lot of game pressure on us.”
Both came from Dorsey, who earlier had tended to admire his work while it traveled to swishes. His third and fourth three-point shots, however, came at the 0:43 and 0:02 marks of the first half, came from serious yonder and chased the score from 38-33 to 44-33. The first, from the left of the top, rattled out, rattled upward and rattled back down through. The second, from the top, he managed to bank in, so that he could smile at his locker later and say, “I’ll take it. The bank’s open.”
By that point, some Kansas fans did take on a familiar look. Their program had gone out pre-Final Four this decade in plenty a situation that seemed ripe for mirth: as a high seed against Northern Iowa, against VCU in a regional final, against Stanford, against Wichita State, against Villanova in another regional final, all of it wrapped around one national runner-up finish in 2012. Their 2016-17 team, so promising at tip-off, suffered a complication in a 17-second swatch of the third minute when Jackson, the freshman from Detroit, picked up two fouls on the same possession and went off to sit and watch. While he wound up playing only 10 first-half minutes, Mason kept saving Kansas with his own show of know-how: one-handers, his will and his two three-point shots that wreaked booming noise, he scored 17 points as the team, its bench, its coach and its state all seemed to ride his sturdy back. He just could not do enough to avoid another sight they never could have pictured in 1939: players climbing to cut nets upon a ladder bolstered at the bottom by an oversized Duck.