LAS VEGAS—In a wild finish, Oregon hung on for a 95–89 win over Arizona in the first semifinal of the Pac-12 tournament Friday night. Up seven with 27 seconds to play, the Ducks missed a free throw, gave up a three, bricked two more free throws, gave up another three and then turned it over on the inbounds and fouled Arizona’s Mark Tollefsen with 0.4 seconds left. Tollefsen hit 1 of 2 to force overtime, but Arizona couldn’t muster much in the final five minutes. Here are three quick thoughts after Oregon advanced to its third Pac-12 conference tournament championship in four years.
Oregon’s defense is legit
You think of offense when the Ducks come to mind—old habits are hard to break, and the national brand became, well, national because of football. But the Ducks basketball team won Friday night because of some spectacular defense. Holding Arizona to 33.3% in the first half was impressive enough, but the crazier part is that Arizona’s usually the one locking down opponents. Oregon did more than just frustrate Arizona though—the Ducks altered almost every shot that got in the paint. UO came into Friday ranked fifth in the country in blocks per game at 5.8, and rejected 11 shots in the win, including seven in the first 11 minutes (that is not a misprint).
“They take you out of what you normally do with a soft press, they play a match-up zone and when they go man-to-man they’re really, really aggressive,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller of Oregon’s defense, after first lavishing praise on the Ducks’ offense. “I think their defense is good enough to go all the way.”
They finished with more blocks and steals (10) than turnovers (eight). And even when Arizona made its run with 27 seconds left in regulation—aided by the Ducks’ pitiful performance at the free throw line—and forced overtime, the Wildcats couldn’t do much with the extra possessions. It’s tough to capitalize offensively when the Ducks’ long limbs are waiting for you at the other end of the floor. They move well laterally, and their outstretched arms take away most passing lanes. And if teams find their way to the paint, they’ll meet Chris Boucher, who has 103 blocks and counting this season.
Oregon can get to the Final Four
Duck fans should not exactly book their tickets to Houston just yet, but if Oregon replicates its last 3:56 of the first half, when it went 5 for 6 from the field and finished on a 15–2 run, the Ducks can build big leads. Also key: NOT replicating the last 27 seconds of the game.
Sustaining leads hasn’t been easy for Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament, as the Ducks also let a youthful Washington team climb back a few times in the quarterfinals. But there are two positives to take away from that. First, the Ducks haven’t peaked yet, which is good news for them. (Improved free throw shooting could go a long way, as Oregon finished 21 of 36 from the line.) Second, they showed some serious resiliency after a near-disastrous ending.
As good as the Ducks looked for stretches Friday, imagine what it’ll be like if they can stay focused for a full game. It’s easy to nitpick Oregon’s play after Friday night, but the Ducks had three players (Elgin Cook, Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey) score 19 points or more. The NCAA tournament is all about match-ups and Oregon, likely a two or three seed, will match up with basically everyone.
Arizona’s got a LOT of work to do
Projected as a six seed in SI.com’s latest bracket, the Wildcats could very well lose in the first round if they repeat Friday night’s performance. They made a nice little comeback, forcing an extra period, though some ridiculous decision-making (like not calling a timeout) and free throw shooting from the Ducks played a significant part.
Yes, this is one of Miller’s best coaching jobs, after losing four of five starters from a team that went on back-to-back Elite Eight runs. But in a very un-Miller-like fashion, these guys cannot defend anyone. Oregon went five out for long stretches on offense, attacking from the perimeter and picking on every Wildcat on the floor. The Ducks shot 47.8% for the game.
So many things about this Arizona squad are uncharacteristic, and it’s been that way all season. Friday was just the latest example: Even when the Wildcats cut it to four with 1:04 to go, Oregon guard Tyler Dorsey (42.2% from the arc this season) somehow got left open in the corner and drained a long two. On the ensuing possession, Oregon didn’t let Arizona penetrate or get a shot off in any timely manner, which led to Ryan Anderson launching an ill-advised three that bounced off the right side of the rim and went out of bounds to Oregon. Gabe York is a terrific shooter, but what happens when he goes cold?
Bottom line: Miller deserves a lot of credit and crazy things can happen if a team gets hot at the right time. But don’t be surprised if the Wildcats get upset, and exit early this March.