Watch out, Pac-12. Here come the Ducks.
Oregon won a massive game in thrilling fashion on Saturday night, taking down the No. 14 Arizona Wildcats 98-93 in overtime. The game featured a bit of everything: Multiple players received technical fouls, a future NBA star dominated and the crowd at Matthew Knight Arena provided enough energy to power the city of Eugene for a month.
It also featured an Oregon team that is looking more and more like a squad heading to the March Madness.
While that may still be stretch with the Ducks sitting at 19-10 and 9-7 in conference play, there’s still have a long way to go before anything definitive can be said about Oregon’s NCAA Tournament chances. The one thing that can be said about the Ducks after their thrilling win on Saturday night is that they are playing as well and as confidently as they have all season.
“We feel like we can compete with any team in this league, beat any team in this league,” sophomore forward Keith Smith said. “We’re going to do whatever we need to do going forward to win.”
A hallmark of this season has been Oregon’s inability to close games, and if the Ducks do miss the tournament, that’d be an easy area to place the blame. They squandered late leads against Arizona in January, against Boise State in December, against USC twice and to UCLA just last week.
“We can’t change the past,” head coach Dana Altman said. “Four or five games that I didn’t have them ready and we didn’t get it done and there’s nothing we can do about that.”
But that wasn’t an issue on Saturday. The Ducks felt their backs against the wall, stood their ground and pushed back. Down 13 points with three minutes into the second half, Oregon flipped a switch and rattled off a 25-11 run to take a 65-64 lead with nine minutes left in the game. The game turned into a dogfight, and Matthew Knight Arena into a madhouse. Both teams traded buckets until the regulation horn sounded with the game knotted at 83.
Yes, Arizona came back, but that’s what good teams do.
Great teams smell blood and go for the jugular, which is what Oregon did in overtime. The Ducks kept their composure, got stops, and hit big shot after big shot to put the Cats down.
“We shared the ball like we needed to, got some big stops, we pulled out the win,” Paul White said.
Oregon has not been a great team by any stretch this season, that’s obvious. But the way it played on Saturday, especially down the stretch, highlighted a team that has learned from its mistakes. All those frustrating late-game losses finally taught the Ducks how to avoid them.
“Tonight I think we started to learn from our mistakes in the past and some of those close games,” Smith said. “I think we really just elevated our play and played together instead of going our separate ways.”
The Ducks are playing their best basketball of the season right now, and while they are still on the outside looking in, it appears their best basketball is ahead of them.
“Who knows how many games we’re going to have to win,” White said. “We might have to win the whole Pac-12 Conference Tournament. But if it comes down to it, we’re not looking to lose. We want to continue to take steps in the right direction and I think that’s what we’re doing.”
Follow Gus Morris on Twitter @JustGusMorris