The quarterfinals of the 2017 Pac-12 Men's Basketball Tournament tipped off today with the Session 3 matchups involving two high seeds that earned a first-round bye on Wednesday. The Oregon Ducks, defending tournament champions and the top seed in this year's event, rolled over the No. 8 Arizona State Sun Devils, 80-57, in a game that was closer than the score indicates. In the other matchup, the No. 5-seeded California Golden Bears won their second game in as many days, beating the No. 4 Utah Utes by a 78-75 score. The game was tied at halftime, but Cal was able to outplay Utah down the stretch in the second half despite the fact the Utes did not have to play on Wednesday.
If you were working today and missed the action in Vegas, here's the specifics of what happened this afternoon in Session 3.
Whose fans will be happy?
Once again, it's the Golden Bears fans that are celebrating today. Cal improved to 21-11 on the year, kept its NCAA Tournament hopes alive and gave itself an opportunity for a big win on Friday night in the semifinals against the Ducks (28-4). Considering the top three teams in this conference are ranked in the Top 7 nationally, the Bears will be in great company at the Pac-12 Tournament tomorrow night. This is the kind of spotlight that Cal craves and deserves after averaging 20-plus wins per season since 2006.
Whose fans will be sad?
The Utes won 20 games and finished fourth in the conference's regular season, but Utah needed to win this game and then beat Oregon on Friday night in order to even be considered for the NCAA Tournament. Why? Basically, the Utes' out-of-conference schedule wasn't very strong at all, and despite winning 11 games against fellow Pac-12 schools, that hasn't enough to impress the computers. Utah (20-11) will get a consolation call from the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) next week, so its season isn't over. But this certainly was a missed opportunity for the Utes to prove everyone wrong, and they just missed out on taking advantage of that chance down the stretch thanks to some clutch play from the Golden Bears.
What were the big moments?
Oregon led by just three points at halftime over an underdog ASU squad playing mostly just five players, and the Ducks certainly turned up the intensity in the second half while the fatigued Sun Devils (15-18) struggled. Still, the lead was still just eight points for Oregon after senior guard Torian Graham converted a four-point play for Arizona State with 7:16 left in the game. The Ducks truly stepped on the gas then, scoring 20 of the game's final 25 points to close out the Sun Devils. Oregon sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey scored 15 points in just 13 minutes of second-half action to lead the way. Meanwhile, the Cal-Utah game came down to the final seconds when it never should have. The Bears were up comfortably with a handful of minutes to play, but the Utes made a late charge to close within one point in the final seconds. Enter Cal senior guard Jabari Bird: He looked out of control doing it, but with 14.1 seconds left, Bird made a shot from in the lane and drew the foul. He calmly sunk the free throw to give the Bears a four-point lead, and when Bird sunk two more free throws with 5.5 seconds left, the game was securely in Cal's hands as Utah's last-second desperation shot came up way short.
Which players came up big?
Junior forward Dillon Brooks scored 22 points for the Ducks to augment Dorsey's 21 points. Brooks nailed three of his six attempts from downtown, and he also grabbed seven rebounds without committing a turnover. That's why he was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year earlier this week. The Bears' close win was fueled by Bird's down-the-stretch clutch play, but he did plenty well throughout the game, too. Bird scored 26 points behind a 4-for-6 effort from three-point range and an 8-for-9 performance from the free-throw line. That's what you need and expect from a senior in the postseason.
Which players needed to be better?
The entire ASU roster, save Graham, struggled against Oregon, and after the overtime game against Stanford on Wednesday, perhaps it was understandable. However, Graham scored 32 points on his own to earn Player of the Game honors from the Pac-12 Network despite being on the losing side, while the other six Sun Devils combined for just 25 points. For Utah, it's hard to say that any player needed to be better when the team as a whole performed well, shooting 51.8 percent from the floor for the game. Yet the Utes couldn't rebound enough as a team, and that's what hurt them the most: The Bears outworked them on the glass by a 33-25 margin, and no single Utah player corralled more than five rebounds individually.
Big picture in the Pac-12 men's basketball tournament
Cal and Oregon will face each other in the first semifinal on Friday night in Las Vegas at 6:00 p.m. Pacific Time. The Ducks are fighting for a No. 1 regional seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the Bears are fighting for a bid to March Madness. These are two teams that really want to win on Friday night, and it's hard to see the talented, deep Oregon roster letting Cal win. The Ducks swept the Bears this year, winning by 23 at home and by a mere three points on the road. That bodes well for Oregon tomorrow night.
Arizona State's season is done, but while the Sun Devils lose two key seniors, the roster is stacked for next year and beyond. You can expect ASU to be competitive again in 2017-2018, while Utah has a chance for some postseason redemption with a deep run in the NIT event.