March 24, 2007
Oregon Advances to Elite Eight
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Oregon forward Maarty Leunen seems to have figured out how to tell whether freshman Tajuan Porter is going to have a big night.
"We call it the 'heat check,"' Leunen said. "He'll shoot one more just to see if it goes in. Then he's on fire and we just keep giving it to him."
Porter, the 5-foot-6 freshman that no other big school wanted, tied an NCAA regional record with eight 3-pointers and finished with 33 points, as Oregon withstood a frantic comeback to beat seventh-seeded UNLV 76-72 on Friday in the Midwest Regional.
The third-seeded Ducks advanced to play top-seeded Florida on Sunday.
"You get the feeling he was feeling good," Ducks guard Aaron Brooks said. "He's been doing it all year. It's not surprising to me. I had a front-row seat, the best seat in the house."
The Ducks wouldn't be on the precipice of their first Final Four since winning it all in 1939 without the diminutive guard, who hit four 3-pointers against Winthrop in the second round to send Oregon to the second week of the tournament.
That he's playing at this level at all is an upset of sorts.
The Oregon coaching staff went to Renaissance High School in Detroit to scout guard Malik Hairston, a McDonald's All-American. But an assistant coach spotted Porter -- two years younger than Hairston -- draining shots from all over the court. He implored Kent to give him a chance.
Porter jumped on the scholarship offer from Oregon -- the only big-name school to come calling. Now he's become the darling of a tournament lacking a true underdog.
After scoring only eight against Miami (Ohio) in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the "heat check" has only come back positive.
"He had a game of 10 3s and I took him out," Oregon coach Ernie Kent said. "We've seen him play like that before. Nothing really goes through your mind. He's just a terrific player. We thought he was going to be a special, unique player at this level and he sure has been."
Hairston had 14 points and 11 rebounds for Oregon (29-7). Leunen hit three 3-pointers and added 11 points.
"I just came out with a lot of confidence," Porter said.
After he and Hairston hit back-to-back 3-pointers to make it 66-49 with 5:23 to play, UNLV began chipping away.
Kevin Kruger and Michael Umeh combined for 13 points during a 17-4 run that got the Runnin' Rebels within 70-66 with 50.2 seconds to play. But Porter hit 4-of-6 from the line in the last 41 seconds and UNLV's Joe Darger missed a 3-pointer with 30 seconds to go.
"I think it got away from us a little bit," Kent said. "We talked about it in the locker room and you cannot be satisfied with it."
Umeh nailed another 3 with 12 seconds to go, and after a quick foul, Porter hit the first of two free throws to make it a five-point game.
Back came Darger, this time hitting a 3 from the top of the key with 3.2 seconds left. But the Rebels couldn't foul Oregon guard Bryce Taylor until 0.9 seconds left, and he hit both free throws to seal the win.
Kruger and Umeh scored had 15 points for UNLV (30-7). Darger added 13.
"I would give everything for just two more minutes," said Wendell White, the Runnin' Rebels' leading scorer, who managed only nine points on 4-of-11 shooting.
It looked for a while like Oregon was headed for a blowout.
During one stretch in the first half, Porter scored 17 straight points for Oregon, hitting five 3-pointers in a span of just over five minutes. Even when he was fouled tossing up a 3, Porter canned all three free throws.
He capped a 14-2 run with a 3-pointer less than a minute out of halftime, giving the Ducks a 45-33 lead and forcing UNLV coach Lon Kruger to call a timeout. But a few minutes later, Porter pulled up in transition and buried another one from the top of the arc to make it 58-40.
On Oregon's very next possession, even UNLV fans were on their feet as Porter put up a shot from about 25 feet out. Finally, one clanked off the back iron.
"Porter had a great game," White said, "and their big men played well which helped him get free."
The Runnin' Rebels were able to regroup, using a 9-0 spurt to close within 58-49. But Brooks scored on a driving layup and Porter hit another 3-pointer from the wing and the Ducks' lead was back to 63-49 with 6:41 to go.
Oregon dictated the tempo from the beginning, turning it into an up-and-down game and relying on the 3-point shot. The Ducks shot 56 percent from 3-point range (13-of-23) against a UNLV team that had held Georgia Tech to 27 percent and Wisconsin to 24 percent 3-point shooting in the first two rounds.
"Their quickness out front got us on our heels early," Lon Kruger said. "We obviously got it going late, but a little bit too late."
It was an unhappy ending to a touching story for Kruger and son Kevin, who transferred from Arizona State to play his senior season for his dad.
Hairston, Oregon's best defender, frustrated the younger Kruger all game. After hitting three big 3-pointers to help send UNLV past Wisconsin, he was 2-of-11 from beyond the arc against the Ducks.
Kruger struggled to contain Porter on defense, the little guard popping rainbow 3s over him from the Missouri Valley logo beyond the wings.
"He can stop on a dime and not many people can do it," Kevin Kruger said.
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