For E.J. Singler, Oregon's run in the NCAA tournament was a sweet way to end his college career. Sure, he would have liked to play for a title but the Ducks' surprising success this season made for a satisfying ride.
Oregon wrapped up its season 28-9 with a 77-69 loss to Louisville Friday in the NCAA's round of 16.
"It's been awesome to experience it in my last year, and I just soaked it up, had as much fun as possible," said Singler, a former South Medford standout. "A lot of people didn't believe we could make it where we were. Just proud of our guys for just playing so well down the stretch and just battling together to make it as far as we did."
At the start of the season Oregon was picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12. But the Ducks wound up with a share of second place in the league's regular season standings before defeating UCLA in the conference tournament final to earn an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
As the No. 12 seed in the Midwest Region, the Ducks beat fifth-seeded Oklahoma State and fourth-seeded St. Louis in San Jose, setting up the game against the Cardinals in Indianapolis. Oregon became the first No. 12 seed to advance to the round of 16 since Richmond two years ago.
"It has been great," said fellow senior Arsalan Kazemi, who transferred to Oregon for his final season. "This is the most fun I've had playing college basketball. And it was just great, just practicing and, I mean, I didn't want it to stop, but it's sad that it's over now. But it was great, and it was a great feeling knowing that only 16 teams out there are still playing."
In spite of the preseason expectations of the team, the Ducks got off to an 18-2 start and climbed as high as No. 10 in the AP poll. It was their highest ranking since 2007.
The team struggled some after losing freshman point guard Dominic Artis to a foot injury in January. Even after he returned, Oregon was stunned with losses in its final two games, at Utah and Colorado, which cost the team the league's regular-season title. The losses also dropped the Ducks out of the rankings.
But Oregon rebounded in the conference tournament. Johnathan Loyd, who stepped in when Artis went down with his injury, came off the bench to score a season-high 19 points and Oregon defeated UCLA 78-69 in the title game.
Oregon's trip to the tournament was its first since 2008, when the Ducks lost to Mississippi State in the first round. Oregon won the national championship once, in the tournament's first year, 1939.
The Ducks were the lowest seeded of the five Pac-12 teams that made the tournament. They advanced the furthest.
The Ducks put up a fight against top-seeded Louisville (32-5) but fell short in the end. After the Cardinals went up 66-48 with 9:01 left, Oregon made six straight field goals to close to 70-64. But Kevin Ware scored on a layup and Chane Behanan threw down a monstrous dunk to put the game out of reach.
"I'm very proud of the team," coach Dana Altman said. "Outstanding group of guys to work with. Showed a lot of character, bouncing back from a disappointing end to our season, and they showed that same character all year, overcoming obstacles with injuries."
The Ducks have steadily improved in each of Altman's three seasons as coach.
Inheriting a team that went 16-16 under coach Ernie Kent, Altman guided Oregon to a 21-18 finish and the College Basketball Invitational tournament title in his first season. The next year, the Ducks were 24-10 and went to the NIT, losing in the quarterfinals to conference rival Washington.
The Ducks will look a lot different next season. While they still have promising freshman in Artis and Damyean Dotson, they lose Singler, Kazemi, Carlos Emory and Tony Woods.
"A lot of people didn't believe we could make it where we were," said Singler, the younger brother of Detroit Pistons forward Kyle Singler. "I'm just proud of our guys for just playing so well down the stretch and just battling together to make it as far as we did."
Singler went to Twitter for his final goodbye.
"I loved putting that OREGON jersey on each & every game. I will miss playing for the Ducks and representing the state of Oregon! Love you all," he wrote.