Small in stature, big on the hardwood
ST. LOUIS — After Friday's win over Nevada-Las Vegas in the regional semifinal of the NCAA Tournament, Oregon players and coaches used one word to describe 5-foot-6 guard Tajuan Porter:
Porter scored a game-high 33 points, including an Edward Jones Dome record eight 3-pointers made, on 52.9 percent shooting to lead the Ducks to their first Elite Eight berth since 2002. It was Porter's second 30-point game of the year and fifth time in the last six games he's scored in double figures. It was also the best individual performance by any Oregon player throughout the NCAA Tournament.
The Ducks will face top-seeded and defending national champion Florida at 11:40 a.m. (PST) on Sunday for the right to go to the Final Four.
"He was dynamite today," said Oregon guard Aaron Brooks. "I think he seen that we was struggling a little bit on the offensive side and that's what a good point of ours can do. They can pick their teammates up."
No one needed more picking up than Brooks, whose eight points was his lowest total since scoring six against Arizona on Feb. 10. Brooks picked up two fouls early in the first half, had to sit, and was never able to get into an offensive rhythm.
Porter, on the other hand, thrived in what turned out to be a tempo that favored Oregon more than UNLV, and made most of his 3-pointers by pulling up in transition. His eight 3-pointers moves his school-record total to 108.
UNLV guard Kevin Kruger said that ability to pull up off the break gave Porter enough room to shoot over bigger defenders.
"He can stop on a dime," said Kruger, who drew the defensive assignment on Porter. "Not many people can do that, and it allows him to get about a second, couple feet of space, which is what he needs to get off the shot. He's perfected it."
The Ducks' success is directly related to the trust they've placed in Porter. After finishing last season 15-18, Oregon has on many occasions this season put their offense in the hands of the undersized freshman point guard from Detroit.
The Oregon coaching staff stumbled upon Porter accidentally a few years ago while recruiting junior guard Malik Hairston, a McDonald's All-American and a teammate at Renaissance High School. An assistant coach spotted Porter in the backcourt and convinced Oregon head coach Ernie Kent to take a chance. Oregon was the only major program to offer Porter a scholarship.
"I've loved little point guards," Kent said. "A lot of coaches stay away from them because they think they're going to be a defensive liability. When I first saw him in a game, I saw a guy who could just shoot the lights out."
In his first three games with the program, Porter scored 27, 28, and 38 points respectively and silenced schools such as Michigan and Michigan State that shunned him because of his size. Porter has been equally as effective in the latter part of the season. He was voted the most outstanding player in the Pac-10 Tournament after averaging 20.3 points to lead the Ducks to their second-ever Pac-10 Tournament title.
His four 3-pointers against Winthrop in the second round of the NCAA Tournament were the reason Oregon was in Sweet 16 in the first place.
"I'm just thankful that we had enough common sense in ourselves and we saw him early on to recruit him," Kent said. "Because we thought he was going to be a special, unique player at this level. And he sure has not disappointed us at all."
Graham Watson covers collegiate athletics for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.