by Rob Moseley
Waverly Austin picked the perfect time for a career night.
Based on projections, Oregon was perhaps playing to secure an NCAA Tournament berth Tuesday night. The Ducks would need to beat Arizona State to do so, and 7-foot-2 post Jordan Bachynski, who had a career day of his own against Oregon a month earlier.
Having played more than 13 minutes in a game just once since early December, Austin responded in commanding form. The 6-foot-11 senior set career highs with 28 minutes, 10 rebounds and five blocks — plus numerous other altered shots — in the Ducks' 85-78 win over the Sun Devils.
"He was the difference in the game," UO coach Dana Altman said.
The win was Oregon's sixth straight, the Ducks having crawled back from the depths of a 3-8 start to Pac-12 play. The UO men are 21-8 overall, 9-8 in conference play and firmly inside the NCAA Tournament bubble entering Saturday afternoon's regular-season finale against Arizona.
Wanting to play with a sense of desperation, the Ducks opened the game on a 15-0 run. Though ASU fought back within as few as three during an uncharacteristic stretch of missed free throws by Oregon in the second half, the home team never trailed, and made its final 14 free-throw attempts to clinch it.
"We're trying to play on that type of level, like it's an NCAA game right now," said UO senior Mike Moser, who led the Ducks with 22 points and 17 rebounds, his third straight double-double.
"We just want to keep playing as if we're not in the tournament, keep fighting."
Moser was officially named Oregon's player of the game, but as Altman noted, this was Austin's night, and right from the start.
ASU (21-9, 10-7) controlled the opening tip, but missed its first six field-goal attempts. Five of those were inside the three-point arc, and Austin either altered or outright blocked all five. For at least one night, concerns about the Ducks' lack of a "rim protector" in the post were alleviated.
Austin completed a three-point play for a 24-16 lead late in the first half, and drew a loud ovation from the crowd when pulled from the game for a break with Oregon up 51-44 after halftime.
Arizona State's Jahii Carson finished as the game's leading scorer with 28 points, including a couple of three-pointers in the final two minutes. But Austin twice altered shots that Carson missed during a stretch a few minutes earlier, when Oregon extended its lead from a precarious 64-59 to a comfortable 71-61.
That from a player who, after opening the season in the starting lineup, not only lost that assignment but didn't even get off the bench for three different Pac-12 games earlier this year.
"To his credit, he just kept going," Altman said. "He stayed with us as a coaching staff, and when he got his second chance, came back and has given us a lot. I feel good for him."
That said, Altman added, "he's been practicing better, but I've got to be honest, I didn't see the coming."
Teammates said Austin remained positive through his time on the bench, and kept working hard in practice. Austin, a junior college transfer who joined the program last season, said he's motivated to get Oregon back to the NCAA Tournament.
"It would be real special to do it two years in a row," Austin said. "Not a lot of people can say they've done that."
One of Austin's final moments on the court was a steal with 2 minutes remaining, as the Sun Devils tried to get the ball to Bachynski in the post. Both centers went to their respective benches shortly after, Austin as a plus-21 on the night (the margin by which Oregon outscored ASU while he was on the court) and Bachynski a minus-10.
"I know Mike's stat line was very impressive, and Mike had a great game," Altman said. "But we got beat so bad inside the first time we played. Just Waverly's presence and his activity, it was a great performance."
For the Ducks as a whole, it was a clutch performance with their postseason fate possibly on the line. Oregon has benefitted from a Pac-12 schedule back-loaded with home games, having taken its lumps on the road earlier in the year, and the Ducks are finding some chemistry at the right time.
"I don't know if people remember, but we started off the season 13-0," Moser said. "We're a team that's capable. You get in a drought and you kind of get stuck there, but you just keep chipping away, chipping away. Finally we kind of turned it around."
From 3-8 in conference to the cusp of an NCAA Tournament berth, it's been a UO basketball season to remember, most definitely. A series of two-point losses to UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State on the road seemed to doom the Ducks in late January and early February, but they've now avenged two of those defeats in the last week, and have a chance to reconcile the third Saturday.
"We're getting better," Altman said. "I still don't think we're hitting on all cylinders yet.
"We don't have much time to do it. But a lot of teams would have folded at 3-8, and we'd just lost three games by two points. A lot of teams would have folded. We had great leadership, and the guys in the locker room really did a good job of staying together."
NOTES: The Ducks have won 94 games in the past four seasons, which is tied for the most in a four-year span since the “Tall Firs” won a school-record 94 games between 1935-1939. … Moser is the first UO player to record three straight double-doubles since Joevan Catron in the 2010-11 season. Moser is averaging 18 points and 16.3 rebounds per game in the past three outings. … UO held a 32-12 advantage in points in the paint and a 40-33 edge on the glass. … Moser (22), Jason Calliste (16), Damyean Dotson (15) and Joseph Young (13) scored in double figures to lead UO.