The scene in the Oregon locker room will stay with me for a long time.
Their season suddenly over, the Ducks were coping with the strange reality of how it had ended on Saturday night. With 5.8 seconds remaining and North Carolina’s lead down to a single point, Kennedy Meeks of the Tar Heels stepped to the free throw line and missed twice. Theo Pinson was able to tip the rebound out to junior guard Joel Berry II, who was sent to the line and missed two more. This time, Meeks was able to grab a second consecutive offensive rebound to seal the game, inspire a Tar Heel celebration, and send the Ducks home.
I had never before covered a major college basketball game, much less a Final Four game. I waited in a corridor beneath the stands at University of Phoenix Stadium. My story required a reaction from Jordan Bell, the 6-9 Oregon junior whose rebounding and versatility had helped the Ducks reach this point in the season for the first time since 1939.
Bell entered the semifinal with a streak of five tournament games with 12 or more rebounds, a feat last achieved by Hall-of-Famer Hakeem Olajuwon of Houston, who reached the Final Four from 1982 through 1985. In the semifinal against the Tar Heels, Bell grabbed another 16 boards during his 35 minutes on the floor.
He was the focal point of Oregon’s interior defense that ranked second in the nation in blocked shots. When senior forward Chris Boucher tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the Pac-12 tournament, Bell’s role became even more vital. He responded to the expanded role by blocking an Oregon NCAA tournament record eight shots against top-seeded Kansas in the Elite Eight.
But on this night none of that mattered.
Bell was inconsolable. He leaned back in his locker, tears welling up even after nearly 30 minutes had passed since the final buzzer.
He was the focus of the media members in the locker room. More than a dozen reporters crowded around him. Bell answered questions for nearly ten minutes but was never able to raise his voice much above a whisper. I could see the pain, the anguish, the self-blame in his body language and his facial expression, or lack of one.
Bell was one of the main reasons the Ducks had made it this far in the tournament, but he only thought about those two blockouts and the rebounds he could neither tip nor secure.
I struggled to hear what he was saying. “They just out toughed me,” Bell muttered. “They just took it from me.”
This man worked his tail off all game against an imposing North Carolina front court. I saw it. All 77,612 fans in attendance saw it. But the hurt of missing out on a shot at a national title had suddenly overshadowed everything else.
Bell’s willingness to help me and every other journalist in the locker room explain what had happened will always stick with me. Media members would come and go from the group, which meant Bell would hear the same questions over and over. He answered them each time. During one of the most disappointing moments of his life, he did not close himself off and hide. He answered the tough questions.
Thank you, Jordan Bell, for trusting us during the longest 10 minutes of your life.
- Colton Bennett @ColtonBennett