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What we learned from Arizona’s overtime loss to Oregon

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Another heartbreaker against the Ducks

NCAA Basketball: San Jose State at Arizona Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats suffered another one-point overtime loss to Oregon on Saturday, falling 73-72 to the Ducks in McKale Center.

It drops Arizona (19-8, 9-5) into a tie for second place in the Pac-12 entering the final two weeks of the regular season.

Our full recap of the heartbreaker can be found here, Sean Miller’s postgame comments can be read here, and below are some additional takeaways.

Arizona still can’t close

The last time Arizona lost to Oregon, I dove into the nuts and bolts of why Arizona faltered down the stretch, most of it having to do with the halfcourt offense going stagnant.

And while that was part of the reason the Wildcats blew a six-point lead with 3:27 left in regulation Saturday—they did not score the rest of the period—the bigger culprits were poor free-throw shooting and defensive rebounding.

The Wildcats went 10 for 21 from the stripe and lost by one measly point.

Let’s go through the most egregious misses, shall we?

  • Nico Mannion was awarded three free throws with Arizona up 61-58 with 4:21 left in regulation and missed two.
  • Josh Green drew two foul shots with 2.5 seconds left in regulation, the game tied, and missed both.
  • Dylan Smith went to the line with 3:29 left in overtime, Arizona trailing by two, and split the pair.
  • Christian Koloko clanked two free throws with 1.4 seconds left in overtime that could have tied the game or given Arizona the lead.

On the other side? Payton Pritchard, being the steely senior that he is, went 8 for 8 from the stripe, including 6 for 6 in the final three minutes, burying a pair with 15 seconds left to force an overtime period that would have never happened if Green just made one of his free throws.

“It really negated some really terrific play,” Miller said. “You’ve got to make free throws, especially when a guy like Payton Pritchard is against you because he’s not going to miss a free throw. Free throws are a big deal in college basketball, that’s never changed.”

Arizona’s lack of experience and killer instinct—those two probably intertwined—haunted them.

“I’ll go back to Allonzo Trier, he was like the executioner,” Miller said. “When you have a guy like Payton Pritchard and Allonzo, you almost take it for granted.”

As for the rebounding woes, both grabbed 37 for the game, but the Ducks corralled six offensive boards in the overtime period alone. None bigger than when Pritchard missed a 3 with 11 seconds left, only for Will Richardson to track it down, pull the ball out, and drive to the cup before delivering a wraparound pass to Shakur Juiston for the game-winning layup with 1.4 seconds left.

It didn’t help that Zeke Nnaji, statistically Arizona’s best defensive rebounder, was not on the court for many of those moments. Miller kept swapping him with Koloko on defensive possessions.

“The one common theme with our team, and I’m not going to run from it, when you have the ball in the hands on a defensive rebound or the shot hits the rim and you’re up four, you’re up two, there’s a 1:30 left, there’s 45 seconds left … you go up above the rim, you get it, you land and then they foul you,” Miller said. “The ball doesn’t go off your hands, the guy doesn’t run around you, you don’t forget to block out, you don’t let the guy run and get it. Those are the plays that really drive you crazy because that’s just absolute toughness and effort. I wish we were better in that area, we’re not, and that’s why we have the number of losses that we do. Those coveted late-game shots that miss, you can not be on the losing end of that in March Madness.”

But too often Arizona is. The Wildcats are now 1-6 in games decided by five or fewer points.

“Like any other loss, people make good plays and there were definitely some 50-50 balls, some missed rebounds that we had and we have to learn how to really fight through those long, arduous games,” forward Stone Gettings said. “Especially as March Madness comes up.”

Arizona wasted Dylan Smith’s best (?) game of the season

Of the many things the Wildcats had going for them before all those late miscues is that Smith, the X-factor, played like they needed him to.

Better, actually.

His 18 points were his second-most this season. Smith went 4 for 8 from 3, and only turned the ball over one time, mostly avoiding those head-scratching plays that make him such an enigmatic player.

Before Saturday, such a performance would have guaranteed an Arizona win. Previously they were 6-0 this season when Smith scored 12 or more points.

And not only did he lead Arizona in scoring and sink a clutch floater to give the Wildcats a one-point lead with 29 ticks left in OT, he helped slow down Pritchard (that is a relative term, obviously) after the UO senior scored 10 points in the first seven minutes of the game.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy play any better or harder than he played,” Miller said of Smith. “Where we erred is in the first eight minutes of the game where we didn’t put Dylan on Payton Pritchard and he got off to a really hot start.”

Whether or not it was Smith’s best game as a Wildcat, he wasn’t really up for that discussion. After the game he sat at the podium with a blank stare.

“I don’t know, man. I just play basketball,” he said. “People can say it might be my best game. I feel like I’ve played better games. Just because I score a little more it’s highlighted more. I still gave up some plays on defense, but if we would have won it would have been up there.”

Koloko shouldn’t hang his head

That Koloko’s night ended the way it did is a shame because he was terrific up until the missed free throws, grabbing six rebounds in a career-high 16 minutes, also swatting one of Pritchard’s 27 shots.

The freshman was so effective that, down the stretch, Miller was subbing Nnaji out for defensive possessions so he could get Koloko’s length on the court.

Unfortunately, that’s why Koloko was the one who was fouled on Jemarl Baker Jr.’s home-run pass at the end of overtime. Oregon had just scored and substitutions are not permitted after a made basket.

A jump ball sure looked like an over-the-back foul

Rarely do I ever pin wins or losses on the officials, but I have to mention an extremely questionable call that changed the complexion of the game.

Leading 64-62 with 28 seconds left in regulation, Smith drove the lane and missed a floater in traffic. Nnaji was in prime position to grab the offensive board, sealing off Francis Okoro under the basket. Okoro reached over him to try to get the rebound anyway, appearing to ring Nnaji around the neck.

Yet, a jump ball—not an over-the-back foul—was called after Nnaji crashed to the court. Oregon had the possession arrow (don’t get me started on that rule) and Pritchard made two free throws on the Ducks’ next possession to tie it.

Then again, none of this matters if Green just makes one of his free throws in the final seconds.

Green “felt like he was fine” before missing his free throws

Maybe Green shouldn’t have been in the game in the first place. He was sent to the free-throw line after he took a hard foul after driving baseline, causing him to bang his head on the floor.

Green stayed down for a minute and didn’t look right when he finally did get up, though apparently he felt well enough to take the foul shots.

“All he had to say is his head hurt and we’d have taken him out,” Miller said. “I think he felt like he was fine, and it didn’t work out.”

Had Green not been able to shoot, Oregon would have been able to select his replacement. Green did exit the game after the Ducks called timeout after his misses, but he returned in overtime.

Pritchard is the Pac-12 Player of the Year

In a must-win game, Pritchard willed his team to victory.

He poured in a career-high 38 points, grabbed six rebounds, and dished out four assists. His lightning-quick first step, unbelievably tight handle, and overall feel for the game looked too advanced for the college game.

The senior made big shot after big shot, and always seemed to know when to push the pace and pick his spots.

In this game, that meant shooting early and often. With his teammates struggling, Pritchard scored 20 of Oregon’s 36 points in the first half, then 18 of its 28 points in the second half.

“He made some tough shots. He shot a lot beyond the NBA 3,” Smith said. “You gotta get out and contest, you can’t just relax on him. That’s the biggest thing. He has the ultimate green light. He can shoot whenever, wherever and he made the plays for his team to win.”

Pritchard also played the entire game because there was no way he was coming out in a game of this magnitude

“He wouldn’t let me,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “I tried a couple times.”

Pritchard was already the frontrunner to win Pac-12 Player of the Year but his performance Saturday should have cemented it if he hadn’t already.

He has Miller’s vote.

“I’m gonna give Payton Pritchard tremendous credit. That’s what college basketball used to be about,” Miller said. “You’ve got a guy that’s played on four consecutive NCAA tournament teams. He’s the heart and soul of Oregon’s basketball team and he rolled in here tonight and he put 38 on the board, and it was easy. It wasn’t like he hit fadeaways and tough shots, it was an easy 38.

“He is the Player of the Year in this conference as far as I’m concerned. He’s been a nightmare to play against on one hand and a real pleasure to watch because he’s such a terrific player to watch. I don’t know, does he not get drafted? Is he just too old, is that how this works? I don’t know. I like to think he can play in the NBA.”

To make things worse...

Arizona’s loss to Oregon and Colorado’s loss to UCLA means Arizona State is in sole possession of first place after it beat Oregon State on Saturday.

Also: the Bruins’ win means there is a four-way tie for second, meaning the Wildcats have work to do just to secure a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament.