In Oregon’s most anticipated game of the season thus far, the 4th-ranked Ducks (20-1, 9-0 Pac-12) defeated the No. 14 Utah Utes, 87-65, Friday night to keep their lead at the top of the conference.
With the help of senior Megan Huff, Utah (18-2, 7-2) put up a tough fight, but in the end the Utes were unable to seal the upset, earning their second loss of the season.
Here are the takeaways from the game:
Short bench no longer an excuse
For the past three games, Oregon had to overcome itself during moments of lull, sloppy plays. It let opponents make up large deficits and even sometimes take the lead. On Friday, Utah came back from trailing by 13 points to tie the game twice, stealing the lead at one point too.
At the beginning of the season, Oregon head coach Kelly Graves emphasized his team’s short bench wouldn’t be a problem, but now maybe it is. Because the fact is, the Ducks are having a hard time maintaining momentum. Yes, it’s hard to split 40 minutes of playing time between just nine players, but Utah can do it just as well, if not better, with just eight.
Utah, which has a roster of 13, hasn’t had the luxury of playing with nine healthy players in almost a month. Its lack of substitutes is due to two players sitting out the year, due to transfer rules, and two additional players battling ongoing injuries.
While the Ducks have managed to always complete the comeback during rocky games, and there’s nothing they can do about extending their bench, they need to manage the issue prior to tournament season if they want to continue outplaying their opponents.
Huff vs Oregon
Utah senior Megan Huff led all players with a career-high 38 points and 11 rebounds. The closest player behind her was Oregon’s Satou Sabally with 20 points, while both Erin Boley and Ruthy Hebard led with seven rebounds each.
“We didn’t ever find anything that stopped Huff,” Graves said. “That kid can play. She is really really good. We knew that going in, but after watching her, she is better than I thought she was.”
Huff’s dominance started early, ending the first half 5-of-5 from the 3-point line. It was her sixth, and final 3-pointer, of the game that tied the game at 48 with 3 minutes and 34 seconds remaining in the third quarter. At that moment, she had made 13 out of Utah’s 19 points needed to reach the Ducks. Huff also made the second tie of the game, at 54, with a layup at the quarter’s 1:43 mark.
The Pac is packed
Utah may be the second ranked team in the Pac-12, but both No. 9 Oregon State and No. 8 Stanford rank above them in the AP Top-25. At the No. 4 spot, Oregon knows it wears a target, and it knows that all three teams are just as worthy to wear it as well. With Utah’s 75-68 upset over the then-ranked No.6 Cardinal last Sunday, the Ducks understand that they must treat every opponent the same if want to remain a hosting-contender for the NCAA Tournament.
The Ducks will play both Stanford and OSU in the upcoming two weeks. Oregon will take on Stanford on the road next Sunday, Feb. 10, and play OSU on both Feb. 15 and Feb. 18 (with the latter in Corvallis).
Follow Maggie Vanoni on Twitter: @maggie_vanoni