Shortly after Arizona and Oregon tipped off in Matthew Knight Arena, the always outspoken Bill Walton claimed the Wildcats are the best team in college basketball when they are “on their game.”
He is the same guy who spent much of the night playing with expired peanut butter (yes, that was as weird as it sounds), so it would have been easy to dismiss his opinion and click the mute button. Besides, he is not exactly impartial when it comes to the Pac-12 and its institutions.
But maybe he was on to something.
Not long after, the 24th-ranked Wildcats raced to an 11-point lead on the No. 9 team in the country. Josh Green was making highlight plays in transition. Nico Mannion was sinking jumpers. Zeke Nnaji was dominating the boards, grabbing 10 rebounds in the first half alone.
And later, when the freshmen cooled down a bit, Arizona got some big buckets from fifth-year seniors like Dylan Smith, Stone Gettings, and Max Hazzard, who combined to hit five 3-pointers.
The Wildcats looked like a complete team. They were, as Walton would say, on their game, and it put them in prime position to steal their first win in Eugene since 2015. Nnaji netted two free throws to give UA a six-point lead with 1:46 left.
Then, Arizona was off its game and it became evident why it is an 11-4 team that could be unranked come Monday.
Oregon scored six straight points to force overtime, where the Ducks would hang on for a 74-73 win. Arizona committed five turnovers in the final two minutes of regulation plus overtime, and also missed five of its last seven shots.
The late-game blunders, plus some iffy calls, cost the Wildcats a win that would have looked great on their résumé come March and put them in the driver’s seat for a Pac-12 championship.
How you now view this team depends how cynical you are.
Optimists can point to the fact Arizona’s four losses have been by a combined 13 points, and three of them have come against top-10 teams. In other words, the Wildcats have proven they can hang with anybody, in any environment. And maybe, as the team continues to gel, they will learn how to win these nail-biters.
Pessimists can argue that being competitive doesn’t matter if you’re always falling short. These, after all, are the kinds of opponents the Wildcats will have to beat if they plan on making any noise in March. So far, they haven’t been able to get it done, and maybe they never will. This isn’t a new problem. Arizona has won just two NCAA Tournament games in the last four years.
But no matter where you stand, let’s recap what happened against Oregon...
Arizona led the Ducks 66-62 with 1:29 left. Smith, who had hit some timely shots earlier in the game, skied for a rebound over three Ducks to earn himself a trip to the free throw line.
But he clanked the front end of a one-and-one, and the comeback was on.
The Ducks collected the rebound and Will Richardson, their hero down the stretch, beat Smith off the dribble to earn two free throws. He sank both, trimming Arizona’s lead to 66-64 with 1:20 left.
Jemarl Baker Jr., Green, and Gettings handled Oregon’s full-court press admirably, kicking the ball past the timeline with 28 seconds left on the shot clock.
Rather than attack Oregon’s scrambled defense, Mannion held the ball at midcourt with 1:13 left on the game clock and 23 seconds left on the shot clock. He bled 13 seconds off the clock before initiating a high screen with Nnaji.
Mannion tried to drive to his right but was walled off near the elbow. He kicked the ball out right as Nnaji started cutting toward the rim, and the Ducks collected the wayward pass after it rolled to the opposite end of the court.
Payton Pritchard then went to work. After a couple dribble handoffs failed to produce a clean look for him out of a timeout, the senior isolated on the right block and a nailed a fadeaway over Mannion to knot the game at 66 with 28 seconds left, a tough shot to be sure.
Arizona could have taken a timeout to diagram a play, but opted to put the ball back in Mannion’s hands. Again, he ran a pick-and-roll with Nnaji. Or at least tried to. Pritchard iced the screen, freeing Nnaji for a jumper at the right elbow with three seconds left.
Somehow, Pritchard recovered and blocked the shot, though he might have actually gotten a piece of Nnaji’s arm instead. Sean Miller thought he did. Arizona fans probably do too. The replays, in my opinion, were inconclusive. Either way, the Ducks tracked down the loose ball —as they seemed to all game—and overtime ensued.
After Green opened the period with a layup, Richardson answered with a personal 5-0 run to give the Ducks a 71-68 lead with 2:29 left. He beat Baker for an up-and-under, then drove past him again, scooping in a layup while drawing a foul on Gettings and burying the resulting free throw.
After Smith was swallowed up on a drive by Shakur Juiston and Richardson missed on the other end, Mannion pushed the ball in transition, dribbled to his left after getting a screen from Gettings, and drained a pull-up 3 to make it 71-all with 1:37 left.
Oregon went back to Pritchard, who put a series of moves on Mannion before knifing into the lane as the shot clock was winding down. Pritchard got a step on Mannion and drew a blocking foul, another call Miller (and Mannion) vehemently disagreed with. Pritchard split the pair of free throws and the Ducks led 72-71 with 48 seconds left.
Smith made another critical error on Arizona’s next possession, bouncing an entry pass out of bounds. It was too far for Nnaji to reel in as he battled an Oregon big man for low-post position. (Play-by-play guy Dave Pasch thought Nnaji was pushed in the back. Walton disagreed.)
With 32 ticks left, the Ducks inbounded to Richardson in the corner. The Wildcats trapped him, and he tried to beat the pressure by lofting a pass to a teammate on the other side of the court. Green jolted ahead to pick it off and lay it in for the go-ahead bucket. (He rarely touched the ball late in the game otherwise.)
Richardson immediately pushed the ball ahead and spun past Green for a layup to put the Ducks back on top 74-73 with 17 seconds left. Smith took the inbounds pass coast-to-coast, but again was stuffed at the rim on a left-handed drive, setting up a baseline out of bounds play.
It was nearly a disaster. Nnaji caught the ball in the corner, but was running out of real estate, so he tried to feed Gettings on the wing. Pritchard intercepted the pass but landed out of bounds.
With 8.5 seconds to work with, Green—now standing on the sideline instead of the baseline—inbounded the ball to Mannion after he came off a double screen from Nnaji and Gettings.
Mannion isolated against Pritchard as the bigs retreated toward the paint. Unable to get much separation, Mannion drove to his left before forcing up a floater over multiple defenders. The shot was off the mark but the Wildcats got one last chance with 2.1 seconds left.
Here’s Arizona’s final shot attempt vs. Oregon. It was an iso for Nico Mannion that resulted in a floater over three defenders. pic.twitter.com/59f49jB8XW— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 10, 2020
They turned it over, and that was that. Mannion inbounded the ball to a cutting Green, who fumbled it to Pritchard. It appeared Green was trying to kick it out to Gettings, who was alone at the top of the arc.
Maybe that play would have resulted in points if ran correctly, but Arizona’s execution was brutal so we’ll never know. Smith especially struggled down the stretch, missing that free throw and two contested layups that he had no business taking. His wild entry pass to Nnaji, who did not take any shots in overtime, was just as costly.
Arizona’s late-game playcalling was questionable as well (what’s new?), especially Mannion’s final shot. Asking a freshman, even if he is super talented, to isolate against a steely defender like Pritchard is a tough order.
But Arizona’s go-to play in those situations has been exactly that—give the ball to Mannion and let him go to work.
Remember, when Arizona was down by one with eight seconds left against St. John’s, Mannion got a high screen from Nnaji and missed a similar-looking floater over three defenders.
In the same situation against St. John's, Arizona ran a high screen-and-roll for Mannionpic.twitter.com/o9SAHaLiHM— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 10, 2020
Mannion also made a runner earlier in the season to beat Pepperdine at the buzzer, so the results haven’t been all bad. Miller clearly has immense trust in the freshman, for better or worse.