"It showed everybody today, it wasn't a fluke. We're here to play, we're here to win it."
Payton Pritchard said it, and he meant it — and it’s doubtful that there is anybody in the country willing to disagree with him following what happened on Friday afternoon.
Oregon, the 12 seed in the South Region who just snuck into the NCAA tournament, dropped 47 points in the second half on the nation’s fifth-best defense en route to a 72-54 victory over No. 5 Wisconsin.
"To see them come like this and have so much fun, that's why we coach, just to see guys get together and have fun and play their tails off," Oregon head coach Dana Altman said. "That's what they're doing right now."
It wasn’t this smooth of sailing for the Ducks earlier in the season as injuries led to the team never being able to fully play together and develop the type of chemistry that’s been known of Altman-led teams.
But over the final month of the season, something clicked defensively, and a leader emerged in the form of Pritchard. Oregon won its final four games of the regular season before winning four games in four days to take home the Pac-12 tournament championship to earn the conference’s automatic bid.
Since then, the Ducks held opponents to 54.3 points and 34.6-percent shooting per game — while Pritchard took home MOP honors of the conference tournament.
“He’s been phenomenal. I mean, he went through a stretch there where he struggled a little bit. Man, he’s been unbelievable,” Altman said of his junior guard. “We’ve made a big jump because of him, and then just the cohesiveness of the group.”
Oregon’s success has carried over into the NCAA tournament as the Ducks limited Wisconsin to 54 points on 33.3-percent (20-of-60) from the floor and 20-percent (6-of-30) from beyond the arc in the win. Even more impressively, they limited Badger’s all-American Ethan Happ to 12 points, eight rebounds and no assists, numbers significantly below his season averages.
“Sometimes they were coming with the double team right away, or sometimes they were waiting until I was on the interior,” Happ said of Oregon’s defense. “But either way, there was extra bodies around me all the time… they were trying to force me to take it out and have other guys make plays.”
Pritchard finished with game-highs of 19 points and eight assists (also five rebounds), dictating the tempo and pace of the game and constantly keeping Wisconsin off-balanced on the defensive side of the ball.
Louis King added 17 points (3-for-3 from deep) while Paul White finished with 14 points, all in the second half, to pace Oregon’s breakout.
The first half was very close as neither team was able to seperate themselves from one another. The Ducks used a 9-2 run to take an 18-11 lead before the Badgers responded with a 10-3 run to tie the game at 21. Both teams traded buckets the rest of the half to go into the break tied at 25.
But things changed in the second half, in a big way.
Following a Happ layup that cut Oregon’s lead to 52-47 with 6:26 to play, the Ducks embarked on an 18-2 run over the next five minutes to seize control of the win. King started the rally with a three-pointer on the following possession after Happ’s layup, finishing with eight points.
“It was a tie game at the end of the half — you know, he (Altman) said we’re playing the best basketball we’ve played,” King said. “And we didn’t want it to get any higher than it was and coming out in the second half we knew we had 'em.”
Oregon now turns its attention to No. 13 UC Irvine, who upset No. 4 Kansas State 70-64 earlier Friday. The Anteaters entered the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the nation, winning 16 in a row, before taking down the Wildcats by coming from behind in the second half.
“It’s a different game. We’ll put this one to bed really quick, get to work tonight on Irvine… I told our guys don’t look at numbers — that’s one thing about seeds, people look at numbers, and, man, you can’t do that,” Altman said. “I told them enjoy this one until we get on the bus and leave the building, and then we gotta start thinking about Saturday. And fortunately our league plays that Thursday, Saturday. We’re used to one day off, so hopefully our guys will get the recovery and bounce back quickly.”