SACRAMENTO — During the madness of March, the difference between winning and losing often comes down to a single play. The ball bounces a certain way, a whistle is blown at a certain time, and the fates of all involved can change in an instant.
When Rhode Island’s Stanford Robinson followed up a missed shot with an offensive rebound and a bucket to give the No. 11 Rams a four-point lead over No. 3 Oregon with 2:20 remaining Sunday, an upset appeared within reach.
“That defense we faced is as good as any defense we faced this year,” Oregon Coach Dana Altman said later, underscoring the difficulty of the situation.
But then Rhode Island couldn’t grab a defensive rebound — first after Oregon senior Dylan Ennis missed the second of two free throws with 2:01 remaining, then again after junior Dillon Brooks missed a three-pointer that could have tied the game.
That allowed the ball to wind up in the hands of Tyler Dorsey, who calmly buried a three-pointer to tie the game with 1:44 remaining. Then, with 40 seconds to go, the sophomore guard capitalized on a switch and rose up from well outside the arc for a three-pointer that proved to be the game-winner, capping a sensational night with 27 points on 9-for-10 shooting (including 4 for 5 from three-point range) to lift Oregon to a heart-stopping 75-72 victory and a second straight Sweet 16 berth.
“His hands never came up,” Dorsey said of his game-winning shot, “and I let it go.”
Rhode Island got one final chance to tie the game, but with no timeouts, junior guard E.C. Matthews dribbled to the wing and let fly with a hopeful bomb that missed everything. After the ball bounced harmlessly into the corner as the clock ran out, the Ducks celebrated a victory that came by the slimmest of margins.
It was a victory that came almost exclusively because of the sweet shooting of Dorsey, the only player who appeared ready for the moment Sunday. Brooks, the Pacific-12 Conference player of the year, was hot early but struggled after that, scoring 19 points but shooting just 7 for 20 from the field. Dorsey’s backcourt mates, Ennis and Payton Pritchard, combined to go 2 for 12.
But Jordan Bell dominated inside, grabbing 12 rebounds, including six offensive, and blocking two shots, and Dorsey took care of the rest.
“[My teammates have] been finding me, and all I’ve been doing is spotting up and making the simple play, the right play,” said Dorsey, who has scored at least 21 points in five straight games, dating from the start of the Pac-12 tournament last week in Las Vegas. “Like Coach always says, keep my focus first on defense and rebounding, and the offense, let it come.
“That’s all I’ve been doing these last couple games, and my teammates have been having confidence in me, and I’ve been knocking down the shots.”
Rhode Island was dealt a major blow by a knee injury to senior star Hassan Martin, who was limited to 14 minutes and went 0 for 3 from the field with three fouls. The two-time reigning Atlantic 10 defensive player of the year’s absence was clearly felt. Oregon was able to press out on the perimeter defensively, with Rhode Island having no post presence to speak of, while Bell ran rampant on the offensive glass without Martin being able to body him up.
“Physically, he just didn’t have it,” Rhode Island Coach Dan Hurley said. “I took him out of the game in the last five minutes because my heart broke for him because he couldn’t really go.”
Perhaps if Martin was healthy, Rhode Island would have secured that key defensive rebound and Dorsey wouldn’t have gotten his shot to tie the game. But he wasn’t, and the Rams didn’t.
And because they didn’t, the Ducks got an opportunity and, thanks to Dorsey, took advantage of it. That allowed Oregon to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in consecutive years for the first time. The Rams were faced with a cross-country flight home that will be spent thinking all about the two offensive rebounds Bell was able to secure to give the Ducks a chance to tie the game.
“That’s the fine line between winning and losing,” Hurley said. “You secure that rebound — it’s easier to play offense down the stretch of games when you have the ball and you’re tied or you have the ball and you’re up three.
“We’re going to look back on that as coaches, probably, on this plane ride home tonight, and it’s going to be . . . probably the sequence that cost us the Sweet 16.
In March, one team’s salvation is another’s devastation. That’s why, thanks to a couple of offensive rebounds by Bell and a couple of shots by Dorsey, Oregon is still going and Rhode Island is not.