LAS VEGAS—On Feb. 23, Oregon reached one of the lowest points of its season. The Ducks had just suffered their third straight loss after surrendering 62 points in the second half to UCLA, falling to 15–12.
Since then, Dana Altman’s group has ripped off eight consecutive wins, including Saturday night’s 68–48 victory over top-seeded Washington in the Pac-12 tournament final at T-Mobile Arena. It was the No. 6-seeded Ducks’ fourth win in four days, making them only the second Pac-12 team to accomplish the feat. And after giving up those 62 points in the final 20 minutes at UCLA, Oregon has allowed more than 62 points once in the past eight games (75 points in its overtime win over Arizona State on Friday night).
“It was key that everyone kind of came together at the right time,” Oregon forward Paul White said. “I remember talking about, after the UCLA game, those games going into the tournament is probably going to be the deciding factor for how well we do in the tournament. We really played well with the Arizona schools, and we just carried that momentum. And now we’re Pac-12 champs.”
Despite the lopsided final score, the two teams were neck-and-neck in the first half. Oregon carried a 28–26 advantage into the break, and then the Ducks held the Huskies to just two points in the first 9:32 of the second half, which helped them build a 44–28 lead. Washington never cut the deficit to closer than 13 after that.
It was a remarkable effort for the Ducks, considering they were just coming off that draining overtime win over Arizona State less than 24 hours before Saturday’s tip. And while that ASU contest showed Oregon’s resilience and fight after coming back down seven points with 4:35 remaining, this Washington victory was a display of Oregon’s defensive ceiling.
“We screwed up some switches and some communication in the first half and gave up some easy baskets,” Altman said. “But I thought the first 10 minutes of the second half was the deciding time.
“Our defense was really good. We did make some plays offensively, but it was our defense, and Kenny [Wooten] really protected the rim and put some thought about getting in the paint. And then we contested their threes. And that was the deciding period of time.”
The defense has been absolutely suffocating over the past few weeks. You have the shot-blocking tandem of Wooten and Francis Okoro down low, who combined for 16 rejections in the Pac-12 tournament, including four in the second half vs. Washington by Wooten. You have the pesky stable of guards in Pac-12 tournament MVP Payton Pritchard, Will Richardson and Ehab Amin constantly causing chaos at the top of Altman’s matchup zone or in full-court presses. Oregon forced a turnover on a whopping 22.6% of opponents’ possessions in the Pac-12 tournament. And you would have never thought that Oregon was playing its fourth game in four days with the level of defensive intensity it brought to win the Pac-12 tournament final.
“I think everybody just took care of their bodies really well,” Pritchard said. “We have a great support in the coaches and everybody else connected to the organization. So we took care of our bodies and we got sleep, we hydrated well. And I think that showed, game in and game out, we just came prepared. And fatigue never really hit us.”
Just one month ago, it would have been extremely difficult to envision Oregon being one of the hottest teams in the country entering the NCAA tournament. In the month of March, the Ducks have the second-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, per T-Rank, only trailing Wisconsin. This was a group that dealt with a season-ending injury to five-star freshman Bol Bol in mid-December and didn’t seem like it would ever be able to adjust to his absence.
Now, the Ducks are the double-digit seed that no one wants to face in the Round of 64.
“In the 39 years I’ve been lucky enough to do this, I’ve never seen a team make that drastic of a change in a three- or four-week period,” Altman said. “They really grew up quick and really believed in each other.
“I thought the Arizona weekend was huge for us because we held Arizona State to 51 and then we held Arizona to 47. We beat them both bad, and the guys then really realized we can guard like this game in and game out, regardless if the ball is going in or not.”
While Oregon is peaking at the right time, Washington appears to be heading in the opposite direction. The Huskies were held to under 50 points for the second time in a week against the Ducks. They did win two games in the Pac-12 tournament, but they weren’t easy—Washington beat No. 8-seeded USC and No. 5-seeded Colorado by a combined eight points. In their previous four games before Las Vegas, the Huskies lost to Pac-12 bottom-feeder Cal (which had gone 0–15 in conference play before that upset), escaped Stanford with a one-point win, survived Oregon State at home in overtime and capped the season with the aforementioned 55-47 loss to Oregon.
Washington has just one win over a guaranteed NCAA tournament team: a 61–56 victory over Oregon in late January. The Huskies haven’t shown the ability to consistently compete against stronger competition, which was even more evident in this 20-point defeat.
With the Pac-12 hoping for an improved NCAA tournament performance after last year’s debacle, it appears that Oregon is the conference’s best shot at advancing in the bracket.