The Arizona Wildcats put up a gallant effort without star guard Allonzo Trier and head coach Sean Miller, but fell short to the Oregon Ducks, 98-93, in overtime Saturday in Eugene.
Arizona’s first-place lead on the USC Trojans is now just one game. The Wildcats (22-7, 12-4) finish the regular season at home next week against the Bay Area schools, with another chance to clinch a Pac-12 championship.
Deandre Ayton, who was greeted with loud boos each time he touched the ball, had a monstrous 28-point, 18-rebound, 4-block outing in his first game after an ESPN report said Miller discussed paying him $100,000.
But Ayton’s final field goal came with 10:31 left in the second half, and he would only take one more shot from that point on, as Arizona struggled to feed him on the low block.
UA shot 58 percent as a team, but had 17 turnovers to Oregon’s four, while the Ducks had a 22-19 edge in second-chance points.
Plus, Oregon doubled up Arizona at the 3-point line, draining 14 of 33 treys.
Ayton, who played all but one minute, had 17 points and 11 rebounds in the first half alone, feeding on the hostile crowd, and seemingly playing with added anger. That helped propel UA to a 43-37 advantage at the break.
“I’ve never seen him play better than he is right now,” Bill Walton said.
You think Deandre Ayton is playing with some extra anger tonight? My goodness pic.twitter.com/xHsQAAo2TX— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) February 25, 2018
Coached by Lorenzo Romar, the Wildcats had a collective fire about them from the get-go. They scored 20 points in the first five minutes, and made 13 of their first 17 shots.
A layup by Parker Jackson-Cartwright put Arizona up 27-15 with 13:13 left in the first half, UA’s largest lead of the period.
But the Ducks started intensifying their full-court press, which cooled Arizona’s hot start. The Wildcats shot just 4-of-14 to end the first half.
Oregon only shot 40 percent in the first 20 minutes, but launched 16 3s and made six, plus only had two turnovers, allowing it to have a manageable deficit heading into the locker room.
Arizona started the second half just as it did the first. The Wildcats scored 10 points in the first three minutes, taking a 53-40 lead with 17:04 left, their largest of the game.
But Oregon went on a 13-2 run, accented by two 3-pointers to cut it to 55-53.
Then Ayton drew a foul on an offensive rebound, which led to a skirmish. Keanu Pinder got into it a bit with MiKyle McIntosh, and the Duck forward was handed a technical.
Alkins, who had 24 points, made both technical free throws, then drained a 3 to push UA’s lead to 60-53. A thunderous dunk by Ayton on a feed from Alkins made it 64-55.
That was Ayton’s final field goal, and Oregon quickly erased UA’s lead, thanks in part to some Wildcat errors.
Elijah Brown was fouled by Brandon Randolph on a 3, and made all three free throws, then drilled another in transition off a turnover to give Oregon its first lead. Payton Pritchard piled on with a 3 of his own, giving the Ducks a 68-64 lead with 7:24 left.
That capped a 13-0 Oregon run, as UA went scoreless for more than three minutes.
Jackson-Cartwright, who finished with 15 points and five assists, broke that skid with a layup, then made two free throws to tie it at 70. But Arizona was never able to recapture the lead.
A pair of 3s by Paul White put Oregon up 73-70 then 81-76 after Alkins clanked two free throws off the front rim.
Jackson-Cartwright probed for a layup to make it 81-78 then Dylan Smith, who was having a rough second half, drilled a deep, contested 3 from the wing to tie the game at 83 with 22 seconds left.
Pritchard took Smith off the dribble on UO’s next possession, but he put up an errant shot, sending the game into overtime.
The Ducks scored the first five points of the period and never trailed.
A critical moment in overtime came with 1:56 left.
Alkins was fouled from behind on a breakaway dunk by Kenny Wooten, which cut UO’s lead to three, but he taunted the Oregon big man afterward, resulting in a technical foul.
Brown made both free throws to make it a five-point game, and the Ducks controlled the game from there on.
All things considered, it was a commendable effort for the short-handed ‘Cats — they were also without Ira Lee, who missed the road trip because of a concussion — and they are still in a great position to win the conference.
But they have plenty of questions facing them. Will Trier get reinstated from his PED suspension? Has Miller coached his last game? Will Ayton stay eligible?
Until there are answers, it’s difficult to fully assess Arizona’s condition.
As Walton said during the game, “this is ostensibly a battle between Ducks and Wildcats, but there’s a giant elephant in the room.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire