INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Oregon State hardly looked like a No. 12 seed the first two weeks of the NCAA Tournament.
For a while on Monday night, the Beavers sure did.
Yet facing a 17-point second-half hole, the plucky Pac-12 upstarts showed the kind of ferocious defense and determination against No. 2 seed Houston that brought them to their first Elite Eight in nearly three decades. They came all the way back with a frantic rally, only to watch the Cougars hang on for a 67-61 victory and a spot in the Final Four.
The heartbreaking loss ended a charmed late-season run for Oregon State (20-13), which was making just its second trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1990 and was part of a big showing by its often-overlooked conference.
Picked to finish last in the Pac-12, the Beavers beat five AP Top 25 teams, the most since their 1975-76 team won the same number. They won their first game in the Big Dance since 1982, tied the 1963 Final Four team for the most tournament wins in school history with three, and matched Missouri in 2002 as the worst-seeded team to reach the Elite Eight.
The Final Four? It was just 3 1/2 minutes out of reach.
All-Pac 12 guard Ethan Thompson, who ushered the bubble-dwelling Beavers into the tourney with a stunning conference tournament title, struggled all night before coming alive down the stretch. He had 11 points and seven boards, and was the catalyst during a 17-3 run midway through the second half that gave Oregon State a chance.
That charge by Wayne Tinkle’s boys, capped by a 3 from Gianni Hunt, tied the game at 55 with 3 1/2 minutes to go.
Quentin Grimes coolly knocked down a 3-pointer at the other end to give Houston the lead back. And after Thompson hit the second of two free throws, Grimes added two of his own to make it 60-56 with 2:22 to go.
Hunt missed a 3-pointer. So did Jarod Lucas. And while the Cougars (28-3) were having plenty of free-throw problems of their own, they made enough down the stretch to earn their first Final Four trip since 1984.
The Cougars, who will play Baylor or Arkansas in the national semifinals, jumped out to a 14-6 lead midway through the first half. They prevented Thompson and Lucas from getting shots on the perimeter, and when the Beavers stuffed the ball inside, they double-teamed 7-foot-1 Roman Silva and forced it right back out.
Oregon State trailed 34-17 at halftime, the lowest-scoring first half for the offensively challenged Beavers all season.
The Beavers nibbled away at their deficit early in the second half, and Thompson finally got his first field goal to go with 12 1/2 minutes left. But the Cougars still had a rather comfortable 52-38 lead when Marcus Sasser, who had taken a wicked elbow to his face earlier in the half, knocked down a jumper with 9:25 left in regulation.
That’s when Oregon State turned to a 1-3-1 zone and made its big run.
Hunt’s layup started it, and Maurice Calloo — who also was bloodied in the second half — joined Thompson in making a series of free throws. Thompson added a floater and Silva’s put-back got the Beavers within 52-48 with 6:15 left.
The Beavers forged a 55-all tie a few minutes later, but they could never regain the lead.