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Mike Lopresti | | March 28, 2021

Oregon State, picked for last in the Pac-12, is a game away from the Final Four

Oregon State vs. Loyola Chicago: Extended highlights from 2021 NCAA tournament

INDIANAPOLIS – For Oregon State, all the magic started with a missed UCLA free throw.

Let’s revisit the Beavers’ first game in the Pac-12 tournament. They lead UCLA 70-69 with three seconds left but the Bruins’ Jules Bernard is at the line for two free throws. He makes both and March is probably over for Oregon State before it hardly began. UCLA likely wins, and the Beavers go home with a 14-13 record and start thinking about next season. But he misses the first and makes the second. Overtime. Oregon State does the proverbial survive and advance and wins 83-79.

The Beavers haven’t stopped surviving and advancing since.

They are here now in the Elite Eight, having overturned conventional wisdom, and maybe logic itself. The team picked to finish last in the Pac-12 is now on the cusp of the Final Four. A program that had won three NCAA tournament games in the previous 54 years just won three in nine days. The Beavers have not seen the Final Four since 1963, when they lost by 34 points to Cincinnati and then by 22 to Duke in the third place game. Sixty-nine different programs have gotten there in all the years since. Oregon State might finally be back Monday night, if the Beavers can do to Houston what they’ve done to everyone else.

“There’s no doubt in our guys’ minds,” coach Wayne Tinkle was saying Saturday after his pack of ground-breakers and wall-busters moved past Loyola Chicago. “They really believe this is their time. It’s what we said before we left the locker room, that we’re not going to get rattled. This is our time. It’s meant to be.”

Beginning to look that way, at least. Since March 11, the Beavers have played six elimination games, and won them all.

The UCLA overtime escape, when they rallied from 16 points down.

The next day, when they hit 10-of-19 3-pointers to blow past Oregon 75-64, five days after they had lost by 13 points to the Ducks. The team picked to finish 12th had taken that as motivation and was starting to make noise. “We know what we’re capable of and we know we don’t need other people telling us where we might end up in the league,” guard Zach Reichle said that day. “We know what we can do and so that’s just what we’re doing, we’re coming out and showing it.”

The next day, Maurice Calloo, a junior college transfer who had lost his starting spot and produced only 10 points in the previous eight games and gone scoreless in five of them, came off the bench and to put up 15 points to help carry Oregon State past Colorado 70-68 for the conference tournament title and bid to the NCAA tournament. “When you’re patient, when you stay together, when you roll with the punches, eventually this is what it leads to,” Tinkle said. “And we have proven that.”

Six days after that, the Beavers began their NCAA tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, held Tennessee to 19 points in the first half, shut down the Vols’ offense on 33-percent shooting, and won 70-56. Tinkle tried to explain his team’s development:

“We had a lot of guys hurt early. I think it was in the first 40 days that we had only seven days where we had our whole team at practice. We suffered from tough losses, but we never threw in the towel. We never doubted ourselves. We just do what we do. We just stay hungry and humble, and we keep working, and we peak at the right time.”

Two days after that, their defense tormented Oklahoma State into 27.7-percent shooting at Hinkle Fieldhouse – Cowboys star Cade Cunningham went 6-for-20 – and they won 80-70. By then, was it time to start taking the phrase Cinderella out of the tournament storage closet? “Call us whatever you want,” Tinkle said. “Believe me, I’ve been called all sorts of stuff.”

Guard Ethan Thompson said after 26 points, “We knew it was in us, this success. We pictured it from the beginning.”

Tinkle’s son Tres had been an Oregon State star and scored more than 2,000 career points for his father, but was a senior in 2020, a year too soon to experience all this. Now he is in Indianapolis with the rest of the family, wearing different T-shirts featuring players on the current squad and only seeing his dad from a socially-distanced 12 feet away through a fence at Victory Field, where teams exercise. “I just wish,” Wayne Tinkle said, “I could share it with him.”

On Saturday, Oregon State sent out its potent mixture of zone and man-to-man defense and stifled another opponent. Loyola Chicago shot only 33.3 percent. The Beavers won 65-58, and there was a personal tinge to it for Wayne Tinkle. His father was once dean at Loyola. “I grew up on their campus,” he said.

This story has just kept getting better and better. Thompson has been the catalyst. He’s averaging 20 points a game in the tournament and played all 40 minutes against Loyola. Six different Beavers have scored in double figures at least once in Indianapolis. It’s the defense, however, that’s driving this saga.

Oregon State has held its three NCAA tournament opponents to 31-percent shooting. The Beavers have trailed only 17 of 120 minutes in Indianapolis, and never by more than six points. They have spent nearly three weeks with absolutely no margin for error, and they haven’t made any. A Final Four berth given all the past – their last place prediction, the general disregard for the Pac-12, their absence from that event for 58 years – would be remarkable.

Meanwhile, Tinkle has taken it all in with inner calm and a buffet of good quotes. He credits his faith and the trust he has in how far his team has come, and its refusal to give in to everyone else’s low expectations. “My wife said, 'Gosh, are you taking medications?’” he said. “It’s not the case. We’re at peace.”

They’re also one win from the Final Four. No team seeded 12th has ever gotten there before. And likely no team picked to finish last in the conference. It would one of the most astonishing runs in tournament history. All the Beavers need do is survive a do-or-die game – for the seventh consecutive time, over 19 days.

“Somebody asked me if I was going to be satisfied,” he said. “Kind of challenged me. 'You probably are satisfied with the Sweet 16, a couple of wins.’ I almost wanted to jump through the phone and knock him out. But he’s a close friend of mine.

“But these guys aren’t satisfied. They’re not going to be.”

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