1. I love watching the Oregon Ducks women's basketball team play. At 11:00 this morning the Ducks played Mississippi State in Portland's Moda Center for a berth in next weekend's Final Four in Tampa and I stayed home to watch it. Linda Schantol and her husband, Wayne, were at the Moda Center and Linda and I watched the game together via text messaging and she helped me feel like I was in the arena, not just in the Vizio room in my house! What a blast!
The Ducks faced a stern challenge. Mississippi State were national runners up the last two years. Their team is built around one of the USA's best players, Teaira McCowan, who, at 6' 7", towers over the other players and is a strong rebounder, defender, and scorer inside. The Ducks gambled on defense and defended McCowan with two or three players on every Mississippi State possession. They dared the Bulldogs to score from the perimeter. Sometimes this strategy worked really well and other times it didn't. Even with all that attention, McCowan scored 19 points and snagged 15 rebounds and all of MSU's starters scored over ten points each.
I thought, as the game started, Oregon would have to score consistently from the perimeter and pull the Mississippi State defense away from the paint and then work the ball inside more with pick and roll plays and drives to the iron. I was very happy early on when, late in the first quarter and on into the second, Satou Sabally hit outside shots along with Sabrina Ionescu. Ionescu continued her superb shooting throughout the game, hitting 12-20 shots, scoring 31 points, icing the game with two free throws at game's end, after she had hit a three point dagger with 1:12 left to put the Ducks up by six.
My favorite shot of the game came with 35 seconds left. MSU had cut the Ducks' lead to four with 54 seconds left. The Ducks set up their offense, worked the ball around (MSU didn't foul), and to my surprise and delight, the Ducks' reliable floor general, organizer, quiet contributor, and infrequent shooter, Maite Cazorla launched a three pointer with 35 seconds left and stuck it, her third trey of the night, out of only four attempts, putting the Ducks up by seven and essentially sealing the game for Oregon. Cazorla has assumed a role of steady leadership on this team. She handles the ball a lot. She distributes it. She could score more, but it's not her role. But, she recognized toward the end of this game that the Mississippi State defense had sagged off of her, focusing more on Ionescu. Ionescu saw it, too, and, believing in her teammate, flashed a quick pass to Cazorla who stepped into her shot and swished it confidently with steely nerves.
I thought that play epitomized the Ducks' trust of each other, their unselfish play, and their heart.
It's a way of playing basketball that moves me.
So did the final score: Oregon 88. Mississippi State 84.
2. I'll admit it. A voice inside me was making an argument telling me to turn off the television, enjoy the thrill of the Ducks' way of playing basketball, and just let it soak in for the rest of the day.
But, I didn't do that.
I flipped over to the Auburn-Kentucky game and what I watched blew me away. On Friday, Auburn lost a top-notch player, Chuma Okeke, to a gruesome knee injury. After Friday's game, Bruce Pearl, when asked what his team would do on Sunday with Okeke gone, said, chin quivering, voice shaking, crying, "We'll rally."
Rally is exactly what they did today against Kentucky. Auburn rallied from an early 11 point deficit and with defensive pressure and great play from their speedy guard Jared Harper tied the game with 38 seconds to go, held on, sent the game into overtime and won it, 77-71.
3. The four quarterfinal games of this year's Elite Eight were the most closely contested in the history of the tournament and their excitement crescendoed in the last game as Michigan State hung on to beat the mighty Duke Blue Devils, 68-67. Duke had won their previous two tournament games when UCF and Virginia Tech missed last second shots at the cup, but Duke couldn't escape this time. While Sparty's victory was sparked by the determination and skillful play of point guard Cassius Winston, it was fifth-year red shirt walk-on senior, Kenny Goins who launched a gutsy three point shot with 34.5 seconds to go and drained it, putting Sparty ahead to stay. Duke had their chances in the closing seconds, but after the basketball gods smiled on them against UCF and Virginia Tech, they withdrew their favor today. Michigan State advances to the Final Four.
Michigan State will play Texas Tech.
Auburn will play Virginia.
I can hardly wait.