EUGENE — The Arizona Wildcats (11-4) fell to the Oregon Ducks (13-3) in a 74-73 overtime thriller on Thursday night in Eugene. The loss moves the Wildcats to 1-1 in Pac-12 play and marks their fourth straight defeat at Matthew Knight Arena.
Freshmen not phased by tough road environment
Early in the second half Oregon went on a 7-0 run to take a 46-43 lead, causing Miller to call a timeout. Ducks fans rose out of their seats and roared as “Shout” played throughout the arena. For the first time all game, and really all season, Arizona was forced to play in a hostile situation.
Out of the timeout, Nico Mannion drove to the lane and scored, silencing the crowd some. Moments later, Josh Green nailed a three-pointer to hand Arizona the lead back. The Wildcats wouldn’t trail for the next six minutes of play.
Arizona faced a similar situation in overtime where Oregon had a chance of expanding a three point lead, only to see Mannion knock down a game-tying three-pointer with 1:38 to go.
Time and again, the four Wildcats freshmen responded well to playing in a difficult environment.
Mannion and Green hit a number of clutch shots, while Zeke Nnaji tallied an 11 point, 14 rebound double-double. Christian Koloko played nine key minutes where he came up with a handful of defensive stops and crucial rebounds.
Miller was pleased with the resiliency of his freshmen playing in what could be the toughest environment they’ll face the entire season.
“I thought our young guys did a great job. Zeke Nnaji, he came here and got 14 rebounds,” Miller said. “I thought Josh Green, a lot like he played in our last game, he checked the box in a lot of other ways. … Christian Koloko in the role that he’s currently in, I thought he performed really well too.”
Thursday marked a vast improvement for all four freshmen from their only prior true road game, a 63-58 loss to Baylor.
In Waco, Mannion and Green shot a combined 6-23 from the field, while Nnaji fouled out and committed four turnovers. Koloko was mostly invisible that game.
Mannion’s defense rose to the challenge
The Nico Mannion–Payton Pritchard matchup was billed as a contest between two of the best point guards in college basketball. For most of the night, Mannion had the upper hand thanks to his stingy defense.
Mannion shut down driving lanes for Pritchard on nearly every possession that both were on the floor. Pritchard’s best chances to score were in transition before Mannion could get a foot in front of him.
The freshman continually forced the senior into tough looks, particularly from behind the three-point line. Pritchard once had to take a shot from about 28 feet out because Mannion wouldn’t give him space any closer.
Pritchard ended the night shooting 28.6% from the field, tied for his lowest shooting percentage of the season. He went 3-11 from behind the arc which marks the most misses from three-point range in his Oregon career.
With the way that Mannion slowed down one of the nation’s top scoring guards, it’s clear that he’s put in just as much work on the defensive side of the ball as he has offensively.
“Nico was really terrific and did a very, very good job defensively tonight,” Miller said. “To me, I think he gained a lot of confidence playing against Oregon’s guards and being able to do a good job.”
Oregon coach Dana Altman was also left impressed with Mannion’s effort.
“We know Nico’s a really good player,” Altman said. “At times tonight for us Payton tried to do a little too much, and I thought Nico played really good. Really good defensive play late when he tried to get the baseline at Will (Richardson), so he’s a good player and I’m glad he’s only going to be there one year.”
Miller believes performance, not seniority dictates playing time
It’s common for a coach to say that they’ll play the best performing players on the court rather than the ones with the most experience. It’s less common for a coach to follow through on that word.
Miller started Chase Jeter as usual on Thursday but after the senior made one too many errors, he found himself riding the bench the rest of the night.
Koloko helped fill in for Jeter, particularly in the second half.
After the game, Miller was contrite in explaining why Jeter didn’t receive more action.
“He didn’t get it done,” Miller said firmly.
Jeter played 12 minutes on Thursday, which ironically is the least amount of court time he’s seen since Arizona lost at Oregon last March (Jeter played six minutes that game).
One of the big questions heading into Sunday is whether Miller will let Jeter start again at center or if he’ll give a starting spot to someone else.
Stone Gettings is the most likely option to start in Jeter’s place. Gettings was on the floor at the start of overtime despite an overall quiet night in which he made one shot, a three-pointer.
Loose balls can win or lose close games
Though Miller praised his team’s effort after the loss, he emphasized that the Wildcats missed out on a handful of loose balls that ultimately helped decide the outcome.
“The loose balls, a 50-50 ball, a defensive rebound, an offensive rebound where the ball’s kind of traveling through our hands, two guys on the floor, and I thought Oregon got more of those plays,” Miller said. “And in a game like the one we just played in, that really, in many ways, can decide it.
Perhaps the best example of Oregon winning one of those balls was when with a 1:10 to go in overtime and the game tied, Pritchard missed a rebound and the ball bounced to the far side of the floor.
Oregon’s Chris Duarte got there in time to pick it up, leading to another Ducks possession where Pritchard got fouled and gave the Ducks the lead at the free throw line.
“Did we make a lot of great plays? No doubt,” Miller said. “Those six to eight rebounds, scrum for the ball, ball’s loose, ball’s at the top of the key, and ball’s around the rim, it’s on the baseline, it just seemed like they were better than us in those plays.”