Dominic Artis' defense on Marcus Smart forced the star Oklahoma State point guard into five turnovers and paced Oregon to a 68-55 win. (Robert Beck/SI)
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Dominic Artis set the tone for Oregon’s game here Thursday within the first 15 seconds. Oklahoma State freshman point guard Marcus Smart, a presumptive All-America and projected lottery pick, was looking to take his first crack at the Ducks’ defense. Artis, the Ducks’ less heralded but vital freshman point guard, picked his pocket and threw the ball ahead to teammate Damyean Dotson for a layup.
That’s pretty much how the next 39:45 played out, too.
Validating all who said that Oregon -- 27-8 and Pac-12 tournament champion -- was ridiculously underseeded by the selection committee, the Ducks thoroughly outhustled, outrebounded and outplayed the fifth-seeded Cowboys, prevailing 68-55 in a game they controlled nearly the whole way. Oregon players insist they didn’t get too caught up in the seeding controversy (though guard Johnathan Lloyd did notice that President Obama picked against them), and Oregon coach Dana Altman said he felt bad for Oklahoma State. As he noted, both teams finished one game out of first place in power conferences, yet somehow wound up seven seeds apart, with the lower-seeded Ducks playing much closer to home.
“We went into the game believing we were a pretty good basketball team,” said Altman.
For Oregon, the sweetest part of the victory -- besides notching the program’s first tourney win in six years -- was the play of Artis (13 points, four steals), who missed nine games in January and February with a stress fracture and only reclaimed his starting spot in last weekend’s league tourney.
“I called it,” said fellow point guard Lloyd. “I knew he was going to have a huge tournament. He’s getting back to midseason form.”
The 6-foot-1 Artis, a Bay Area native playing his first game back home, finished with double-digit in points for the first time since a Jan. 19 game at UCLA. His three-pointer with 11:08 remaining gave the Ducks their biggest lead of the game, 54-38. But much more important was the job he and the 5-8 Lloyd did defending the 6-4, 225-pound Smart. Artis picked him twice in the first half, both leading to buckets on the other end. On the second, he took it the other way himself, dropping a lay-up that put Oregon up 17-12.
He pick-pocketed Smart once more after intermission.
“For me and D.A., it was [important] to get under him, use our quickness to our advantage, because he’s real strong,” said Lloyd. “He was their heart and soul, so we tried to slow him down.”
Smart finished the game with respectable numbers -- 14 points, nine rebounds, four assists -- but many of those baskets game late in the second half. If this was his final NBA audition (his departure is less certain than many assume), it did not go as hoped, including the fact he suffered an undetermined hand injury at some point. "It's been killing me ever since," he said. "I tried to play through it." Oregon’s sound, coordinated team defense got the better of him. In addition to Artis and Lloyd, Altman at times rotated 6-5 Dotson and 6-5 Carlos Emory over to Smart to keep from overpowering them.
Meanwhile, Oregon controlled the boards, 44-32 (and 14-6 on the offensive glass). Forward Arsalan Kazemi, who made history as the first Iran native to play college basketball in the U.S. when he signed with Rice in 2009 (he transferred to Eugene last year), finished with a game-high 17, one short of his season high.
And so, a near-annual tournament tradition continues. For the 26th time in 29 years, at least one 12 seed has upset a 5 seed. This one hardly felt like David vs. Goliath, save perhaps for Oregon’s relatively diminutive point guard duo besting Oklahoma State’s future NBA lottery behemoth. Next up for the Ducks: No. 4 seed Saint Louis, the Atlantic 10 champion and a trendy Final Four dark horse.
This time they’ll be legit underdogs.