GLENDALE, Ariz. - The hushed whispers that floated throughout a disappointed Oregon locker room spoke louder than the often inaudible words that escaped the lips of several dejected Ducks players.
UO knew they it had allowed a big moment to slip away during a gut-wrenching, yet typically spirited effort that fell short, 77-76 to North Carolina Saturday night in the Final Four at University of Phoenix Stadium.
"It hurts because we were right there," UO guard Tyler Dorsey said.
Right there to steal what would have been the greatest win in program history and set up an all-Northwest championship game Monday night with No.1 Gonzaga (37-1).
Instead, the Ducks (33-6), who rallied back from a double-digit deficit to nearly win fell short and had only themselves to blame.
"We fought so hard," UO coach Dillon Brooks said. "We fought together. We just couldn't pull this game out."
North Carolina (32-7) missed four free throws in the final six seconds and UO failed to secure an offensive rebound and a chance to make a game-winning shot. Taking the loss the hardest was forward Jordan Bell, who shed tears as he blamed himself for not finding a way to wrestle one of those failed rebound attempts away from North Carolina, which ran out the clock after the second critical offensive rebound.
"I should have blocked out better," Bell said. "I've done that a million times."
Bell ran through the scenarios that could have followed had he grabbed a rebound. They included one of the Ducks' scorers winning the game at the buzzer. But nobody on the team blamed Bell, who battled hard inside all night against a much bigger North Carolina team, led by Kennedy Meeks' 25 points and 14 rebounds, the final one icing the game.
"Meeks bullied us tonight," freshman point guard Payton Pritchard said.
Guard Casey Benson actually blamed himself.
"Yeah, I mean the first (rebound), it just got tipped out and they got it," he said. "And the second one, they got it again. So I wish I could've dove and gotten it. That was on me."
This was on nobody in particular. The game was filled with a zillion near misses and mistakes by both teams.
According to Pritchard, the plan, following the final free throws by North Carolina's Joel Berry II, was to pop Dorsey out for a jumper if the Tar Heels guard made the final attempt. If Berry missed, which he did, Pritchard said that whoever got the ball was going to have to go down court and make something happen. Neither chance ever came for UO.
"This is a tough moment," Brooks said.
Brooks wasn't there to help Bell on the boards after fouling out with about five minutes remaining. He quietly lamented how much it hurt him to be on the bench rather than helping his team when it needed him the most.
"I feel like I let my team down," Brooks said.
UO coach Dana Altman expressed pride in his team. The way they battled. The way they fought. But the team didn't play great basketball as it had during last week's upset over No. 1 Kansas in the Elite Eight.
"They're going to look back and it's going to hurt because we didn't play very well at times," Altman said. "And our turnovers (16, 12 in the first half) were bad and we made some really bad decisions and quick 3s."
Despite the loss, this was the greatest season Oregon has had since winning the 1939 national title. The program has been on a steady upward trajectory under Altman the past four years. The Ducks could easily be back here again, and soon.
"We're definitely on the rise," Brooks said. "It's been a great season. We played really hard, we played for each other. This team will go down as one of the best [Oregon teams] in history."