KANSAS CITY - Oregon senior guard Dylan Ennis put his head down in disappointment after missing his second front end of one-and-one free throw attempts in the final two minutes Thursday night, the latter coming with the Ducks leading 69-68 over Michigan at the Sprint Center.
Ennis felt deflated, knowing that having made the first of his second one-and-one attempt would have given his team a two-point lead with 15 seconds remaining in the game. Making two at the end would have put the No. 3 Ducks up three.
"I went straight over to him," Oregon junior guard Casey Benson said, describing how he offered Ennis encouragement.
But Ennis, a 74.8 percent free throw shooter, didn't need much of a pep talk. He knew he had to find a way to make amends with Michigan having one final chance at pulling out a victory.
Ennis, as it turned out, ended up on Michigan senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. Ennis made it difficult on Walton, a deft penetrator who ultimately settled for a deep jumper that banged off the rim at the buzzer. Ducks win, 69-68 to advance to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season.
"If they hit that shot, it's on you," Ennis said, "and I didn't want to live with that for the rest of my life. So I dug in."
Oregon (32-5) has made digging in a habit this postseason. When this season comes to a close - national champions, or not - these Oregon Ducks should be remembered for their guts, guile and heart. All three have carried them through no matter what obstacles stand in their way. Some have been created by their own doing. Some have come about because of bad luck. Others were the result of strong play from a worthy opponent, such as Michigan.
"The team with the most heart won," UO forward Dillon Brooks said.
That Oregon, which will face No. 1 Kansas on Saturday, made it this far is not shocking. But that they have twice overcome being eliminated by finding a way win over and over has been impressive. The Ducks, minus star forward Chris Boucher (knee) this postseason, easily could have lost in the second to Rhode Island, but pulled out a 75-72 lead thanks to shutting down the Rams over the final few minutes and getting two huge three-point shots from sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey.
Several clutch plays defined Thursday night's win. No. 7 Michigan (26-12) led 68-65 when Ennis missed his first front end of a one-and-one. That could have proven to be devastating. But junior forward Jordan Bell slithered his way underneath Michigan's big men to gather the rebound and put it back in with a reverse layup to make the score 68-67.
After the game, Ennis joked that he owed Bell dinner for "saving his life." Bell joked that his teammate certainly owed him something. But most of all, several of Oregon's players said that that's just how they do things. As a team. Having one another's backs. Picking one another up. Remaining strong.
"We were just playing tough," Brooks said. "Teams are going to go up and we're going to go down. But we're not going to get discouraged."
After one of the team's three defensive stops over the final two minutes, Dorsey ended up with the ball and Oregon down 68-67. He fiercely grinded his way to get off a shot. Driving left. Getting stopped. Faking. Spinning. Getting his defender into the air. Then he smoothly floated in a layup for the lead.
"Do whatever you can to win," Bell said.
Michigan was labeled as the team of destiny after experiencing a minor plane crash earlier this month prior to the start of the postseason. Maybe now it's Oregon that has some of that destiny stuff working for it right about now.
"It's just exciting to move on to the next game and have another opportunity to go to the Final Four," Benson said.
The Ducks were blasted last season by Oklahoma in the Elite Eight during that attempt to reach the Final Four. They weren't quite ready for that level of play. Saturday against Kansas will be very difficult. Its fan base has taken over the Sprint Center and it helped propel the Jayhawks to a 98-66 win over No. 4 Purdue.
The Ducks will need every bit of their defensive prowess and the tenacity they displayed Thursday night to get through that game.
"That's what kind of defense we need for 40 minutes," Brooks said. "The offense will come. Tonight it didn't."
Oregon in many ways is inferior to Kansas. Missing Boucher could really finally catch up with the Ducks on Saturday.
"I feel really bad for Chris, just because it's tearing him up," UO coach Dana Altman said. "He wants to be out there so bad, help his teammates.
The Ducks might go down Saturday. But it won't be without a fight. And it won't be because they lacked the heart to stand in there, take big blows and fire back with desire.