by Rob Moseley
Photo: Eric Evans
They came together as a team Saturday night in the wake of tragedy, and did so again Sunday afternoon when they had a million reasons to be focused on things other than basketball.
At shootaround Saturday afternoon, the UO women’s basketball team found out that Douglas Brenner, father of their teammate Liz Brenner and her brother, UO offensive lineman Doug Brenner, had suffered a heart attack. The Brenner kids immediately left for their hometown of Portland; within a few hours, the Ducks found out the heart attack had taken his life.
Oregon’s players gathered Saturday night at the house Liz shares with teammates Kat Cooper and Lexi Petersen. They brought photos, flowers and candy that will greet Liz when she returns to Eugene. And they tried to wrap their minds around the idea of playing a game, the next day against Arizona.
With starters Petersen and Jacinta Vandenberg sidelined by lower leg injuries, and Brenner away grieving her father’s passing, the Ducks rallied together and played one of their most complete games of the season Sunday. Led by senior stalwart Jillian Alleyne and season-best performances from Cooper and Maite Cazorla, Oregon beat Arizona, 76-54 in Matthew Knight Arena.
“You guys showed character, a lot of character,” UO coach Kelly Graves told his team in the locker room afterward. “We had every reason to hang our heads or be distracted, and you guys came together. You showed me something.”
Alleyne provided her signature double-double, and Cazorla had 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting with seven assists, as she continues to develop as a scoring threat. Each played 35 minutes, including nearly all of the first half, as Graves — who drove to Portland Saturday night to support Brenner — leaned on his remaining available regulars in the absence of so many others.
But by halftime, it was clear Alleyne and Cazorla weren’t alone. Senior Jordan Loera started the game in place of Petersen, requiring the off-guard to fill some of the point guard minutes Petersen usually plays. After Arizona took its last lead early in the second quarter, 19-18, Loera jumped on a loose ball following an Oregon miss; the possession continued, and ended in two Alleyne free throws that put the Ducks in the lead for good.
As the second quarter progressed, Cooper made four straight three-point attempts, helping Oregon take a 37-26 lead into halftime. After the break, Lexi Bando hit two corner threes, Oti Gildon scored in the post off a nice entry pass from Loera, and freshman Lauren Yearwood rebounded two misses at Arizona’s end. Mar’Shay Moore added a couple of exclamation points in the fourth quarter, driving for layins on back-to-back possessions, one with each hand.
As a team, the Ducks committed just 11 turnovers, three off their season-low. And they held Arizona under 40 percent field-goal shooting in the second half.
“Under the circumstances, we could have folded right up, not shown up, got the game over with,” said Petersen, who sat out with an injury suffered late in Friday’s loss to Arizona State. “To see everyone step up and fulfill their role, it was awesome.”
Alleyne’s presence in the post — she had 27 of Oregon’s 66 rebounds for the weekend — helped the Ducks survive without Brenner against the Wildcats. Her absence may have been felt most acutely after the game was over; that would have been the time Douglas, as he did following every home game and even some on the road, would have greeted everyone on the roster with a high-five and a sack of treats baked by his wife, Jennifer.
His absence didn’t go unnoticed, with the Ducks wearing black ribbons bearing his initials. As they gathered in their locker room postgame, one of them shouted out, “Way to get that one for Liz.” And when Cazorla banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer to end the first quarter, Graves couldn’t help but marvel at the circumstances — “I think Mr. Brenner put that one in for us,” the coach said.
As the Ducks (15-6, 4-6 Pac-12) move on from Sunday, they’ll eagerly anticipate Liz Brenner’s return, and those of the injured starters. The team harbors NCAA Tournament dreams still, and probably needs another five or six wins at least, in the ultra competitive Pac-12 Conference.
The challenge is significant. But the Ducks dealt with much tougher circumstances Sunday, and provided some light at the end of a dark weekend.
“We came together as a strong unit under trying circumstances and played a really good basketball game,” Graves said. “I’m really proud of them.”