November 15, 2008

Men's Basketball Comes Up Short in Oregon Heartbreaker

BOX SCORE: at Oregon

EUGENE, Ore. -- Northern Colorado's men's basketball team played to the brink of an upset here tonight at storied McArthur Court.

The Bears showed little intimidation playing inside one of the nation's most hectic gyms before falling 66-64 to Oregon in Northern Colorado's third season-opener under head coach Tad Boyle.

The Bears were down 66-63 with fewer than three seconds to go in the game when newcomer and junior-college transfer Yahosh Bonner was fouled while shooting a 3-pointer. He confidently strode to the stripe and knocked down his first freebie, but he wasn't able to splash down the second.

He purposefully missed his third attempt, hoping either freshman Mike Proctor or senior Jabril Banks could fend off an Oregon rebounder and tip it in, but the Ducks' Michael Dunigan snatched it down as the clock ran off, and the Bears fell to 0-1 on the young season.

They'll now take a day off to travel back to Greeley before getting back in the gym Sunday night to get ready for their Tuesday-night game against instate-rival Colorado State at Fort Collins.

Northern Colorado defeated the Rams 72-59 in Greeley last season.

"I'm sure proud of our effort, that's for sure," Boyle said Friday night. "I'm proud of our fight. I told our team in the locker room -- and the players feel the same way -- we're not happy with this. We never will be. Moral victories are for chumps.

"I think we can build on some good things that happened tonight, though. Certainly, we can learn from some things, but I'm proud of our group." 

For the Big Sky Conference-Bears to have even been in a position to knock off the Pac-10 Ducks here tonight was an impressive feat. But what was even more impressive -- and even more reason to get excited for Boyle's third installment -- was how the Bears got themselves in a position to pull off the shocker in the first place.

Oregon had a 61-49 lead with 6:30 to go in the game, and at that point, with the raucous home crowd finally getting reason to cheer their home team, it seemed hard to envision the Bears making a comeback.

But they did, slowly chipping away at the Ducks' advantage and pulling within two, 61-59, with three minutes to go, following a roll-all-the-way-around the rim 3-pointer from junior Jefferson Mason.

Later, Mason, who ended the night with a team-leading 15 points, knocked in two free throws just before the one-minute mark to pull the Bears within three, 66-63.

At that point, it was anyone's ballgame.

"It was just a coupld mental mistakes that cost us," Mason said. "But that's what happens when you lose a two-point game. It could have been anything. It didn't matter about that free throw that Yahosh had. It could have been any of the easy layups we gave up or the dunks or some other missed free throws.

"We just need to keep working, keep playing our hardest, stay positve and stay a family. If we do that, we'll be just fine."

Northern Colorado spread its scoring around in the first half. No player scored more than five, but nine players had points. Bonner was tops with five in the first half, and senior guard Robert Palacios continued to impersonate a big man, leading the team with five rebounds in the first 20 minutes and a game-high 11 in the contest.

Oregon guard Tajuan Porter came into the game as the Ducks' leading returning scorer (nearly 14 per in 2007-08), but he was completely absent from the scoring in the first half, and he finished with just five points.

"If our guys just keep doing what they're doing, we're going to be fine," Boyle said. "I thought we were really well-balanced, and the thing I like about this team is I like our depth. I thought Jefferson was really good, but they (Oregon) did a really good job of taking Jabril out of the game. He's an absolute force down low, but he had his hands full tonight.

"The main thing is: they (the Ducks) are big, they're strong and they're athletic, and you come in here on the road and hang with them like we did? It just shows that we competed. And I'm really proud of the way we played. We're going to be fine."