by Rob Moseley
Oregon was back inside its locker room, removed from the intensity of Saturday's win over Arizona, and the pageantry of the postgame senior ceremony. Head coach Dana Altman reviewed the game with his team for a few minutes, then ran down their schedule leading up to Wednesday's start of the Pac-12 Tournament.
His remarks mostly finished, Altman paused for a second. Then, for the briefest of moments, the Ducks' stoic head coach got a catch in his throat.
In that instant, it seemed that all the emotions of Oregon's crazy season hit at once — the 13 wins to start, then the brutal 2-8 stretch marked by close loss after close loss, followed by the seven straight victories capped by Saturday's 64-57 upset of the No. 3 Wildcats.
"You guys are good guys," Altman told the players as they sat in folding chairs in front of their respective lockers. "And you could have quit. I screwed up a couple games, and you could have quit on me, you could have quit on each other. And you didn't. You didn't. You stayed with it. You fought your tails off."
In that case, then, Saturday's regular-season finale was a microcosm of Oregon's season — without the hot start. To be fair, the Ducks (22-8, 10-8 Pac-12) were probably lucky to be within two of the Wildcats (28-3, 15-3) at halftime. Arizona was shooting .481, holding Oregon to .375 shooting and had a 21-13 advantage on the boards.
Just like at midseason, when Oregon lost three games by two points, the Ducks kept coming close early in the second half Saturday, but couldn't quite close the gap. Johnathan Loyd's layup got them within 38-36, but he airballed a three-pointer with a chance to take the lead; threes by Mike Moser and Jason Calliste got Oregon within 44-42, but Moser turned it over after the Ducks got a stop on defense.
The Ducks were coming close, but falling short, time after time. And then, something clicked.
After an Aaron Gordon bucket put Arizona up 46-42, the Wildcats went more than seven minutes without a field goal. Fueled by that defensive effort, Oregon got hot down the stretch, making five of six field goals — including three three-pointers — to cap a 17-3 run and take a decisive 59-51 lead.
The hot streak late in Saturday's game continued the hot streak late in Oregon's season, as the upset of Arizona gave the Ducks their seventh straight victory. The UO men finished in a five-way tie for third in the Pac-12, but will be the No. 7 seed into the conference tournament due to tiebreaking procedures and will face 10th-seeded Oregon State on Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Las Vegas.
"You pulled together," Altman told the Ducks in the locker room. "You pulled together and found a way. We've won seven games in a row, and it's you guys. It's you guys. It's your character, it's your toughness — that's what changed. We didn't do anything differently. You guys said, 'We're not going to allow this. We're going to dig down deep and we're going to find a way.'"
Several weeks ago, Oregon's players predicted as much. When the team was enduring a five-game January losing streak, and then the two-point defeats at UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State, the Ducks to a man remained confident in this team.
After a Civil War win on Feb. 16, Loyd said the victory was "an important game for us, kind of getting back on track. We've been so close. It was important for us to bounce back and start this little run we're about to go on."
A month later, Loyd looks like a prophet — that was the first game of this seven-game win streak.
"This is exactly what I envisioned," Loyd said Saturday, after drawing some of the loudest cheers in the senior day ceremony. "I don't want to say I told you so, but I did. We just showed a lot of heart."
Early on, Loyd hit some of the Ducks' biggest shots Saturday. The Wildcats put together two different 9-0 runs in the first half, going ahead by as much as 12, and each of those runs was ended by a Loyd basket. Then, with Arizona's defense extended to guard against threes, Loyd fought his way to the rim for the layin that got Oregon within 38-36.
Minutes later, it was two more seniors, Moser and Calliste, with the three-pointers that got the Matthew Knight Arena crowd going. Calliste hit another to spark that 17-3 run, and it was his three-point play on a fallaway jumper that put Oregon up for good at 53-51.
"On a night Joe didn't shoot well, Dot didn't shoot it well, our seniors stepped up and hit some shots," Altman told the media postgame. And as he'd said to the team in the locker room a few minutes before, "that's what seniors are supposed to do. They're supposed to step up and make big plays."
Calliste, a man of few words, lived up to that reputation postgame Saturday.
"I just didn't want to lose," he said simply. "It's not time to go home yet. There's still work to be done."
But Saturday wasn't just about the seniors. As Altman noted, Joseph Young and Damyean Dotson weren't hitting offensively — they combined to shoot 3-of-17 — but sophomore Ben Carter had several key plays down the stretch. He poked an offensive rebound out to Young for a three-pointer to get Oregon within 50-48, and Carter blocked a shot by presumptive Pac-12 player of the year Nick Johnson when Arizona had the ball and was within 61-57 in the final 37 seconds.
Carter and Calliste contributed to a 26-4 advantage for Oregon in bench scoring.
"That's what you've gotta do — you've gotta be ready," Altman said in the locker room afterwards. "I know it's tough when you're not getting opportunities. But you get your opportunities, to go in and play your butt off, you guys have done a good job."
Given the length of the senior day ceremony, the postgame locker room scene was relatively subdued, the adrenaline rush of the game having subsided. But the Ducks jumped to attention at least once.
"I don't want you to be satisfied with this," Altman said. "You guys can either be satisfied with that, or you can say, let's go down Wednesday and win another tournament."
"Yes sir!" the players responded.
There, the Ducks will look to extend a seven-game winning streak and a remarkable turnaround from the depths of their January woes. It's been the sort of season Altman hopes his players can learn from well after they're done playing basketball.
"You're going to go through adversity with your job, with your families," Altman told his players. "This isn't as tough as those situations, but always remember: 'We didn't give into it. I didn't give into it. I manned up, the team manned up, and we got it done.' And you're going to have to help your wife, your kids, your business someday, with those same things. You just can't quit. You can't give into it. And you didn't. You didn't. And I'm really proud of you for that."
NOTES: The win gives Oregon 95 victories in the past four seasons, breaking the program record for most wins in a four-year span. Oregon won 94 games between 1935-1939. ... Oregon made 10 three-pointers, seven in the second half, which is the second-most Arizona has allowed all season. ... Arizona led 48-42 with 7:51 left before Oregon closed the game on a 22-9 run. ... Moser pulled down his fourth consecutive double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Moser is the first Duck with four consecutive double-doubles since Maarty Leunen accomplished that during the 2006-07 season. ... Held to four points in the first half, Calliste finished with a team-high 18 points on 4-of-5 shooting from downtown. ... Loyd scored 16 points, his second-best point total of the season. He went 6-of-9 from the floor. ... Arizona held a plus-eight advantage on the glass through the first half, but Oregon finished with 35 boards to tie the Wildcats in rebounds. ... With three steals, Loyd moved into a fourth-place tie with Luke Ridnour in career steals. Both players now have 150. During today’s game, Loyd passed Anthony Taylor (147/1984-88) and Fred Jones (148/1998-02), who was in attendance today. ... The 64 points was Oregon’s lowest total of the season. ... A strength for the Ducks all season, Oregon’s bench outscored Arizona’s 26-4.