by Rob Moseley
CORVALLIS — This is not unfamiliar territory, this place in which Paul Westhead's Oregon women's basketball team finds itself.
The Ducks' seven-game losing streak to Oregon State, after an 84-70 defeat Monday, is indeed unprecedented. But of bigger concern to the UO women is where their season goes from here.
Recent history suggests several possible results, and a narrow margin of error for the Ducks.
Oregon is now 9-6 overall, having lost four straight to open Pac-12 play. Not for the first time has a Westhead team generally had its way of things to start the season, only to hit trouble in conference.
Westhead's first group of Ducks, in 2009-10, started 9-3. They struggled to a 7-11 conference record, but that was good enough to finish with a winning record, and Oregon went on to reach the third round of the WNIT.
The next season, in 2010-11, the UO women went 9-2 in the nonconference, just like this season. That group started 3-4 in the conference and then went into a tailspin, finishing 4-14.
So where does this team — this group that just two weeks ago had legitimate postseason aspirations — go?
"We've been here before," Thomas said. "We've seen how easily, if you let it, you can fall into a losing mentality.
"But if you get your head back in the game and realize — no matter the opponent, no matter what the score is — we're going to play Oregon basketball, we stand a chance."
To be sure, hope abides for the Ducks with 14 conference games remaining, plus at least one in the Pac-12 tournament. But they'll need to go .500 in that stretch to ensure they don't finish with a losing record coming out of the conference tournament.
That means getting back on their feet quickly.
The UO women probably could use a break right now, to clear their heads and get their legs back under them. Instead, they'll play at UCLA on Friday, and USC two days later, forcing the Ducks to show some resiliency in order to return home Jan. 24 with their confidence at least somewhat intact.
"We were fine coming into tonight; lose another game like that, back to back, I don't think it ever helps your team feeling," Westhead said. "I don't have a real feel for that, but we'll be fine."
There remain plenty of games on Oregon's schedule in which the Ducks have better than a puncher's chance. Two games each against Washington and Arizona, and another against Utah, present chances for the UO women to take on opponents also at the bottom of the Pac-12 standings.
But the Ducks will also need to win a couple against teams in the middle of the conference, if not higher. Can they steal one in Los Angeles next weekend, or from a Washington State team that opened Pac-12 play with four straight wins?
"We've just got to lace up our work boots and get back to business," Thomas said after Monday's game, in which the Ducks cut a 15-point second-half deficit to one, before losing by 13.
"Obviously we could use a break, playing 'The System.' But we've just got to get back on it. This system, as you can see we can eliminate leads very quickly by playing Oregon basketball. It's just a matter of playing that way for 40 minutes."
Thomas said the Ducks have suffered from a lack of discipline recently. They've committed too many cheap fouls — Thomas' three in the first four minutes Monday hurt big time — and committed defensive breakdowns that led to easy baskets, hurting Oregon's ability to get out and run the fastbreak.
The quality of competition has been a factor in the Ducks' four conference losses, too. But for a team that wants desperately to reach the postseason, Oregon will have to start beating some good teams in coming weeks.
Whether they're able to could decide whether this fifth squad of the Westhead era is more like his first, which made a memorable postseason run, or his second, which came up painfully short.