The Ducks’ alumni team “Always Us” won an exhibition Thursday over a team of players primarily from nearby Bushnell University, 66-60. Up next for Maarty Leunen, Tajuan Porter, Bryce Taylor and company is The Basketball Tournament, a $1 million, winner-take-all event that begins for Always Us on Sunday in Peoria, Ill. (noon, ESPN3).
Thursday’s exhibition capped a short week of practice together for Always Us, which boasts players spanning generations from Leunen and Taylor to 2019-20 senior Shakur Juiston. Now they’ll try and advance as one of two finalists from the 16-team Illinois Regional to the TBT quarterfinals July 31 at Dayton.
“It’s gonna be fun,” said Casey Benson, a member of Oregon’s 2017 Final Four team, who hit the game-ending three-pointer Thursday night. “The special part has been coming back together with all these guys. Obviously getting the million dollars would be awesome, but to cultivate these relationships, it’s been really cool.”
Adding to the excitement Thursday was the presence of fans inside Matthew Knight Arena for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. An estimated 600 of the UO faithful took in Thursday’s exhibition, and celebrated the alumni on hand.
“I think this is huge for the university, to bring the alumni back and create a family environment,” said Porter, who along with Johnathan Loyd, Leunen and Taylor provided the bulk of the offense Thursday. “I haven’t been back here for almost nine years, so for us to come back and get acquainted with the new facilities, the arena, reunite with the university, I feel special.”
Porter, Leunen and Taylor were playing for the first time in Matthew Knight Arena, which opened in 2011, after their UO careers had ended. Asked how the rims in MKA compared with those at McArthur Court, Porter joked they were “a little stiffer” before noting that “I had like 350 (three-pointers) in the other gym, so I got a couple in this new arena.”
Much of the Always Us roster played under current UO coach Dana Altman, but the older veterans were recruited by former coach Ernie Kent.
“It’s really cool to kind of bridge the gap,” Benson said. “I think that’s really been special. Obviously we’re all Ducks at the end of the day. It’s all one team. So it’s been really cool to connect and get to know them.”
Along with getting to know each other, Always Us has been getting acquainted with the format of TBT. Most notably, it seeks to avoid late-game fouls and other clock stoppages by employing the “Elam Ending.” At the first stoppage with less than 4 minutes left in the game, the clock is shut off and the game becomes a race to a specific score — whatever point total the leading team has at that time, plus eight.
On Thursday, Always Us fouled with 3:25 left in the game to stop the clock with a 56-47 lead. The game thus became a race to 64 against the “Eugene All-Stars” — the team of mostly Bushnell players along with Always Us team member MiKyle McIntosh and, to the delight of the home fans, UO alum Jordan Bell.
Bell isn’t playing in TBT, but he returned to Eugene for the week of practices and got in on the action Thursday, slamming home dunks, blocking shots and even making a three-pointer. The Eugene All-Stars rallied during the Elam Ending to get within 63-60, but Benson ended the exhibition with a “walk-off” three-pointer.
Benson said Always Us got the message that they needed to keep their foot on the gas during the Elam Ending. Porter was confident the alums could adjust to the format of TBT.
“We’re pretty smart,” Porter said. “We’ve been adjusting our whole lives; I’ve played in many different countries. That’s part of professional basketball — you have to adjust. I think we’re smart enough to figure it out, and once we find a rhythm we can keep continuing to take off.”