Oregon opened play in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) this evening with a trip to Logan, Utah to play the Utah State Aggies. The Ducks were missing two starters - Will Richardson and N’Faly Dante and so came into the game somewhat short-handed. After a back-and-forth first half in which the teams took turns going on scoring runs, Oregon came out of the locker room after halftime and dramatically tightened up its defense, went back to the inside game that had worked early, and ran away from the Aggies 83 - 72.
Oregon started off strong, playing the best early-game basketball it has in recent efforts. After Utah State scored on its first possession on an Oregon goaltend, the Ducks ran off ten straight points to lead 10 - 2 with 16:25 left in the first half. The remarkable thing about the early run is that Oregon scored all its points in the lane and did not attempt a shot from more than about 8 feet. Rivaldo Soares and Franck Kepnang each scored twice inside during the run, and De’Vion Harmon also hit a close shot from the lane. Oregon’s 2-3 matchup zone was preventing penetration by the Aggies as well as open looks at the basket. The only negative was Jacob Young picking up an offensive foul, and then a reach-in foul just seconds later on the subsequent Aggie possession. Young, who some believe has stepped into the role of floor leader for Oregon during Richardson’s absence, had to go to the bench just two and a half minutes into the game. After Oregon took the 10 - 2 lead, Utah State called timeout and the tenor of the game changed completely. Oregon quit working the ball inside and stopped what had been quick rotation onto Utah State’s 3-point shooters. The result was a predictable scoring run by the Aggies. Utah State scored 11 straight points including three 3-pointers, the last of which gave the Aggies a 13 - 10 lead at 13:47. Oregon obliged during this run by shooting (and missing) outside shots for the first time in the game and turning the ball over. The teams traded baskets for the next several minutes and Utah State still led by three - 21 - 18 with 10:47 left in the half. But Young was now back in the game, and he hit a long three-pointer and when Nate Bittle, pressed into duty by the Dante absence, scored on a put-back, Oregon had regained the lead at 23 - 21. Utah State, however, regained the initiative, scoring 9 straight points to lead 30 - 23.
A particularly unusual play during this Utah State run deserves a specific mention. After a Quincy Guerrier airball, Utah State broke down court and hit another open three-pointer to take a 28 - 23 lead. However, the officiating crew stepped into a handy time machine, and reviewed an earlier part of the play - long before the basket - when Oregon’s Isaac Johnson committed an obvious foul by pushing Utah State’s Max Shulga in the back as the two ran down court trailing the play. Normally, that foul would have stopped play but the officials apparently missed it entirely in real time. Rather than disallow the 3-pointer, the officials called a “Flagrant One” foul on Johnson and awarded Shulga two free throws and Utah State the ball following the attempts. While this is undoubtedly how the rules are written for some odd reason, the play had a bizarre aspect reminiscent of a “continuation” call in soccer. Fortunately for Oregon although Shulga made the free throws, the Aggies missed a three on the awarded 2nd possession.
Utah State hit two more shots inside, more than matched by two inside baskets and a three pointer from Harmon to bring the Ducks within four at 34 - 30 with 2:30 remaining in the half. The first half came to a close after one more Aggie three-pointer, a free throw by Young and another Harmon basket in the lane. Utah State led 37 - 33.
Harmon scored 16 for Oregon on 7 - 10 shooting and three other Ducks had 4 points each. Kepnang grabbed 4 rebounds and Bittle had 3. Eric Williams, Jr. had 2 assists. Oregon shot 45.2 percent from the field and 4 - 10 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Utah State also shot 45.2 percent from the field (interestingly, both teams were 14 - 31 from the field) and 43.8 percent from 3-point distance. The Aggies had 12 assists on 14 baskets and 24 points off the bench.
Oregon quickly got to work in the second half, going back at least initially to the inside offense that had worked so well at the start of the game. Oregon took its first lead since 7:33 remained in the first half at 40 - 39 on a jumper in the lane and layup from Young, and a Kepnang 3-point play in which he made a basket from about 7 feet with a much smaller defender hanging onto his arms. When Kepnang then tipped in a Harmon miss, Oregon led 45 - 41. Utah State obliged Oregon with two wild passes into their own backcourt, resulting in turnovers. Soares scored inside, and then hit a three to allow the Ducks to match their largest lead at 50 - 42 with 14:55 left. The Ducks were beginning to feel it and were playing very loose and relaxed as Utah State went cold from beyond the arc. Young was on a slash and burn mission driving to the basket, making layup after layup. Oregon took its first double-digit lead on a Williams three-pointer at 59 - 48 with 9:41 remaining. As Oregon’s defense stopped allowing wide-open shots, and the Ducks started to get their hands on more Utah State entry passes inside, a Soares dunk gave the team a 65 - 50 lead with 7:39 left. Utah State started fouling early - their first backcourt foul came with 2:44 left and Oregon leading 73 - 56. But the Aggies had a few fouls to give and when they didn’t foul, Oregon was hitting shots or getting layups. Even a few missed free throws down the stretch only delayed the inevitable and Oregon coasted to an 83 - 72 victory.
De’Vion Harmon led Oregon with 19 points, while Jacob Young had 17 and Rivaldo Soares scored 13. Three other Ducks had 9 points. Franck Kepnang had 9 rebounds and Quincy Guerrier 5. Eric Williams, Jr. dished out 5 assists and Young added 4. By going back to the inside game Oregon improved its shooting in the 2nd half, ending at 50.8 percent from the field and 8 - 19 from the 3-point arc. Oregon did miss 5 free throws, which could have been important in a closer game.
Oregon held the Aggies to 38.5 percent shooting overall, as the defense also improved dramatically in the 2nd half. Utah State’s 3-point shooting fell off as the game progressed. Dana Altman won his 300th game as Oregon Coach and has won 20 or more games in every season in Eugene.
Oregon now travels to College Station, Texas to take on Texas A&M, a 74 - 62 winner over Alcorn State tonight. That NIT second-round game is scheduled for Saturday evening, covered here at ATQ by the redoubtable adamh86. Don’t miss it!