There was a widely held belief for most of the season that the Pac-12 Conference would send one, and maybe two, teams to the NCAA tournament.
It looks like the third team’s the charm.
Oregon joined the party with a 68-48 victory over Washington in the Pac-12 tournament championship Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena, completing a rousing run in which the sixth-seeded Ducks won four games in as many days to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
After falling far short of expectations as the preseason conference favorite, finishing in a three-way tie for fourth place, the Ducks (23-12) struck back in a big way against the top-seeded Huskies (26-8).
“I’ve never seen a team make that drastic of a change in a three or four-week period,” coach Dana Altman said after Oregon won its eighth consecutive game. “I think we grew up a lot as a team. Everybody kind of gave themselves to the team.”
Oregon will join Washington and probably Arizona State in the NCAA tournament as the Pac-12 seeks its own comeback after being widely maligned as the weakest of the major conferences this season.
“Fatigue never really hit us,” point guard Payton Pritchard, the tournament’s most valuable player, said after he compiled 20 points, seven assists, six rebounds and four steals.
Ahead by only two points at halftime, Oregon surged into control with a 16-2 run to open the second half. The Ducks mimicked Washington’s style by being the aggressors, flying into passing lanes and swatting shots around the basket.
“I think everybody started to sense that all we needed was 20 more minutes of playing hard and we’d be Pac-12 champs,” said forward Paul White, whose three-point basket midway through the second half made the Ducks’ roaring fans sense the upset was theirs.
Pritchard was in the midst of the game’s defining sequence, throwing an alley-oop to Kenny Wooten for a dunk before taking a charge from Nahziah Carter on the other end of the court.
Pritchard rose and flapped his arms in celebration as fans yelled “Let’s go Ducks.”
His final act came when he stole the ball and drove for a one-handed dunk.
“It was the perfect way to put an exclamation point on the game,” Pritchard said.
Louis King scored 15 points and White had 14 for Oregon, which continued its run of success in this tournament under Altman. His 19 victories in the Pac-12 tournament are the most by any coach.
Guard Jaylen Nowell finished with eight points for the Huskies, who made only five of 23 three-point shots (21.7%) and did not have one player score in double figures.
“We just couldn’t make a shot,” coach Mike Hopkins said without a hint of exaggeration after the Huskies made only six of 17 shots (22%) in the second half.
The Ducks haven’t lost since squandering a 19-point lead during a setback against UCLA in late February. They had been inconsistent after losing star center Bol Bol to a foot injury in December.
“We had a lot of ups and downs and all of us were frustrated — the coaching staff, the players — but the resolve they showed to fight back and really become a team and play for each other, it was really neat to see,” Altman said. “The last three weeks have been amazing, a lot of fun to work with them and I’m really looking forward to continuing to play.”
Oregon’s victory averted the likelihood that the Pac-12 will put fewer teams into the NCAA tournament than it did last season, when only UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State qualified.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch