With Phil Knight, Mario Cristobal and several Oregon football players in Matthew Knight Arena on Thursday night, the Ducks men’s basketball team had all the mojo they could ask for. That’s not to say their 74-73 win over the Arizona wildcats was a lucky win, but it was certainly an unpredictable and almost absurd game at times.
The Ducks were down 57-54 with six minutes left to play in the second half when Will Richardson dribbled the ball down the middle of the court, attempting to slip between two Arizona defenders. The ball was quickly knocked away from his possession, sparking a frenzy for the loose ball with intensity rivaling that of a pack of hungry wolves battling for the last scrap of a fresh kill.
Somehow, the ball ended up back in Richardson’s hands, and all he had to do was look up to see his teammate Payton Pritchard standing wide open behind the 3-point line, calling desperately for the ball.
Oregon relied on a standout performance from sophomore Will Richardson. Richardson posted season highs in points (21), minutes (37), and field goals made (7). His elusiveness and sharpshooting helped him score the team-leading point total, but he kept his teammates involved and racked up four assists.
“I’ve been playing in clutch games for a long time,” Richardson said. “I like it better when it’s close, because it’s do or die, so you really can’t miss.”
Both teams were up and down all night — turnovers were frequent, scoring was streaky, and shooting was inconsistent for the most part. Take Pritchard as Exhibit A. He finished the game shooting an uncharacteristic 6-21 with four turnovers. He missed eight times from beyond the arc, and missed a wide open 3-pointer that would have cut Arizona’s lead from four to one in the final two minutes of the game.
Let’s not be too hard on old Payton, though. He did play 45 minutes on Thursday night, after all.
As the clock counted single digits in overtime, with the Ducks leading by one, Pritchard stole an Arizona inbound pass. His momentum carried him to the side of the court, and he passed the ball to the middle of the key in an effort to retain possession. However, the ball carried straight into the hands of an Arizona forward, and it seemed the Wildcats had an easy layup for the win.
Except for one small detail. The play was dead. Pritchard had been called out of bounds.
All of the craziness and unpredictability of Thursday’s game seemed to be summed up by this one unusual play. At that moment, all 10,113 fans in Matthew Knight Arena — including Mario Cristobal and Phil Knight — were relieved their own player had been called out of bounds.
Looking past all of this craziness, however, would reveal something uplifting for Oregon. The Ducks proved that they know how to respond when faced with adversity.
“We did a lot of good things, and we stayed in the fight,” head coach Dana Altman.
Arizona jumped out to a 7-0 lead to start the game. Freshman guard Nico Mannion carried the Wildcats early, scoring 6 of the team’s first 7 points, and would finish with a team-high 20 on the night. Mannion used his quickness, sharp passing, and graceful floater to navigate past larger Oregon defenders.
On the other hand, the Ducks looked dreadful early. Anthony Mathis looked lost, sending a pass out of his own paint that split two Oregon players and sailed helplessly out of bounds. Pritchard also committed an early turnover leading to the Arizona lead.
“It’s only January 9th, and we can get so much better,” Altman said. “Execution has to get a lot better, our communication has to get a lot better, and we had some bad turnovers.”
However, both players responded. Pritchard scored first for the Ducks, coming back with a three from the top of the key and Mathis followed with his own redemption shot.
The Ducks were forced to battle back from a deficit that grew as large as 11 in the first half, and didn’t claim their first lead until Francis Okoro’s dunk pushed the score to 38-36 in favor of the home team one minute into the second half.
Even though the game stayed tight in the second half, the Ducks found themselves trailing by six with under two minutes to play. Without panic, Oregon made its free throws, played lockdown defense and forced several turnovers in the final minutes of regulation to send the game to overtime, where it would pull out a slim one-point victory.
“Coach told us to stick with it, to stick together,” Richardson said. “They made a couple runs there late, but we believe in our defense and rebounding.”
The Ducks no doubt need to improve their offensive execution. It’s still early in the season, and there’s a lot to work on for Altman’s squad. But hey, what good teams don’t rely on a little luck every once and awhile?