Don’t let Portland get crowded out of the impressive start for the WCC.
It took an extra five minutes, but the Pilots picked up arguably their best non-conference win of the Terry Porter era after knocking off Oregon State in Corvallis on Thursday night. Senior guard Ahmed Ali (26 points, six rebounds) helped lead UP to its fourth straight win and planted a late dagger in the Beavers after having missed a chance to win it in regulation.
Here’s that @ahmed_2_sick dagger. #GoPilots | #WeArePortland pic.twitter.com/PIiXPvGhJc— Portland Men's Basketball (@PilotHoops) December 11, 2020
Junior forward Eddie Davis (22 points, nine rebounds) and junior guard Isiah Dasher (18 points) also came up big in a game the Pilots led by seven at the half, and then had to weather a second half OSU comeback.
The win capped a night that also saw Pepperdine knock off a Pac-12 foe of its own, but may have been especially important for a sagging Pilots program. Portland was picked to finish last in the WCC’s preseason poll, weighed down by a 1-15 league campaign the year prior and just two seasons removed from a 0-16 showing in 2018-19.
One way to flip that momentum? Beat a big program in your own state.
“This is a big win, the guys stayed resilient throughout the whole game even when adversity hit, just a collective effort from everybody,” Ali said in an interview posted by the team. “It’s just a big win for the program, we’re trying to prove that we belong here, we can’t fear nobody.”
To be sure, fifth-year head coach Terry Porter had beaten OSU before, knocking off the Beavers in the Moda Center in his debut season in 2016. For so many reasons, those were different times. Porter had inherited a program that was just a season removed from a run of modest success under Eric Reveno, while OSU was in the early stages of one of the more disastrous campaigns by a power conference school in recent memory (5-27, 1-17 Pac-12, 264th KenPom).
In the intervening years, Wayne Tinkle has restored the Beavers to a semblance of respectability while the Pilots hit — what they hope — was the low-water mark of the past two campaigns.
A virtually all-new group has helped create the early season jolt. JuCo transfers Davis and Dasher have burst out of the gate as starters and major contributors, with Davis especially anchoring the frontcourt next to Cal Baptist transfer Mike Henn. His emergence has been especially important after one of the team’s returning standouts, forward Tahirou Diabate, opted out of the season for personal reasons.
And then there’s Ali, the Washington State transfer that has been untethered in a Pilots attack that has been faster than previous years thus far. Ali has logged three 22-plus point scoring games this year, and is the WCC’s top scorer that isn’t playing on the country’s top-ranked team (21.4 PPG). The dynamic guard recently talked to WCC columnist Jeff Faraudo about being unfazed by the Pilots recent struggles when he signed, instead relishing the chance to play for a former NBA star like Porter.
Understandably, Porter said the ability to get reps together after a pandemic-affected offseason has been valuable.
“The ability to play five-on-five and work on things and get the guys to learn our system and then be able to go in the games and execute it and see how we progress as a team has been great,” he said after the game in an interview posted by the team. “We’ve grown each week with the progress we’ve made on both ends of the floor.”
Can the new group progress far enough to emerge from the basement of the WCC? That remains to be seen but if nothing else, the Pilots have been active participant in the league’s impressive non-conference showing.
That isn’t necessarily something conference prognosticator’s expected prior to the season.