INDIANAPOLIS — The missed free throws are going to haunt them. The opponent’s offensive rebounds will give them an ulcer. Years from now, when Oregon State’s men’s basketball players tell the story of their Elite Eight run, they’ll first think about all the little things that kept them from a Final Four.
It was Houston 67, Oregon State 61 on Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. Kelvin Sampson’s team won the Midwest Region, danced around the court, posed for photos and hugged the trophy. Wayne Tinkle’s team just walked off the court, waved goodbye to the NCAA Tournament, and disappeared through the stadium tunnel.
Said Sampson of the Beavers: “That was a really good basketball team.”
An even better story, coach.
Monday ends up the sobering end to a wild run by OSU. Entering the season, the Beavers were picked dead last in a conference nobody respected. All that unit did was beat a No. 5 seed, a No. 4 seed, and a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Then, Oregon State had the region’s No. 2 seed in a tie game with a few minutes to go.
After that, well, the Beavers dribbled the ball off their legs. They tripped, fell down and shot an airball, too. Houston didn’t have to do much more in the closing minutes than rebound and make some free throws. That — combined with 19 offensive rebounds allowed in the game and nine missed OSU free throws — made winning pretty much impossible for the Beavers.
How was Oregon State even in this game?
That’s the question to ask if you saw the first half, stat sheet, or final two minutes. As one NBA scout who was watching the game said with Houston up 34-17 at the intermission, “If this was a fight, they’d stop it!”
Guts, is how. Resilience, too. It’s the stuff that OSU used like gasoline this postseason in winning six straight games and carrying the hopes of our state into the heart of Indianapolis.
“We believe,” star guard Ethan Thompson said on the eve of the game.
“This is our time,” Tinkle preached for two solid weeks.
The Beavers made us all believe, didn’t they?
It’s going to take some time for Oregon State to get over just how close it was to posing for photographs and dancing itself. This was a winnable game. That the season ended with a painful and uncharacteristic couple of late minutes won’t make this easier.
Exit the tournament on a buzzer beater?
You tip your cap.
Get blown out?
You nod your head.
In the end, the Beavers were so focused on getting good shots late that they forgot to take care of the ball. It goes down as a reminder to every kid in America who stands in the driveway and dreams about taking a game-breaking shot in the Big Dance. Kids, you can’t take the shot if you don’t first have possession. So please, take care of the ball.
Tinkle didn’t have a single NCAA Tournament victory as a head coach prior to this tournament. He qualified four times in prior seasons at Montana and OSU and was excused in the opening round each time. Some of them were ugly losses, too. But Tinkle went 3-1 this trip with a team many, including this columnist, wrote off in December.
“I knew we just needed some time,” Tinkle told me on Sunday.
“We came together,” Thompson echoed.
It goes down as a joyful journey for a program that desperately needed something positive to add to the trophy case. I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised when the Beavers’ final game featured a dismal start. It’s how the OSU season began. I supposed we shouldn’t have been shocked, either, when Tinkle’s team roared back into the game with three-pointers, hustle and great defense.
It’s just what the Beavers do and who they are.
This final game was a mirror of Oregon State’s season, start to finish. The Beavers pulled themselves back together, down 17. They scrambled, and clawed, and during one late timeout, Houston’s bench began bickering and pointing fingers out of frustration. Probably because they couldn’t believe how in the name of Sister Jean they ended up in a tie game.
The rest of the Pac-12 knows how.
OSU isn’t a quitter.
Thompson, a senior, was named to the Regional Team after the loss. Tinkle will undoubtedly be in line for a multiyear contract extension. Jarod Lucas, a sophomore, will slide into the role of team leader next season. But before all that happens I think it’s worth dwelling a little on how special this run was for OSU.
The Beavers were 10-10 at one point of the season. Tinkle was a goner, right? His athletic director, Scott Barnes, publicly said that he was disappointed and needed to see improvement. Nobody flinched when Barnes said it, either, because we all were thinking the same thing — Tinkle is going to be fired.
Then, OSU finished with a 20-13 record and stretched its season to within three days of April. The whole thing is like a can of basketball silly string, isn’t it? Winning the Pac-12 tournament, then upsetting Tennessee, Oklahoma State and Loyola Chicago in succession? Ridiculous — in a word. But it happened. We all saw it.
Ernest Hemingway would have loved this team. It got knocked down for a month solid, but just kept getting back up. Like Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Oregon State showed its scars to the world on CBS.
Oh, yes, those missed free throws on Monday night will sting like mosquitos in the summer. And yeah, the rebounding stats against Houston amount to a stomach ache. But Tinkle’s team and this disjointed season delivered on so many fronts that they’ll both live in program lore.
The Beavers kept battling. They just kept advancing and fighting until there was nowhere to go but out the same tunnel Peyton Manning used to walk through.
OSU finished strong in six straight games. It played with confidence and poise down the stretch. But on Monday, when the Beavers needed just one more big finish, they couldn’t muster it. In that, we’re sort of left with a universal truth, aren’t we?
Every story — even the great ones — must come to an end.
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