Arizona’s unbeaten joyride came to an end Thursday night.
No surprise that it came on the Oregon Trail, where things always have been tough for the Wildcats, especially after a couple of close calls.
And no surprise that Thursday’s 70-66 loss to the Ducks came with another rally by the Cats; what would an Arizona game be without some late drama?
The fourth-ranked Wildcats, making their first trip to Matthew Knight Court, didn’t have an answer for the Ducks until they rallied with an 11-2 run to make it interesting and provide the usual hold-your-breath moments Arizona games have offered up lately.
Arizona was down 65-52 with just under six minutes left before the last-ditch effort began. When senior point guard Mark Lyons, who had a game-high 21 points, hit an acrobatic 3-pointer with 1:18 left, UA was down 67-63 and had hope.
In fact, UA had a chance to tie the score with less than 10 seconds left after a deep 3-pointer by sophomore Nick Johnson, but Johnson rushed what turned out to be Arizona’s last chance to tie it — the Wildcats had no timeouts left — fumbling away the ball just shy of UA’s free-throw line. Oregon then iced it at the line.
As a result, there are only two undefeated teams left in Division I — Duke and Michigan — following Oregon’s storm-the-court upset Thursday night.
“We’ve been playing really well the whole season,” Oregon forward E.J. Singler said. “I think we’re a really good team. This game really showed our team we can compete with a lot of different people.”
Arizona coach Sean Miller recognized as much and blamed his team’s defense, or lack thereof, for the loss. The Wildcats (14-1, 2-1) just couldn’t consistently stop the high-flying Ducks (14-2, 2-0), although Miller thought his team owned the second half.
Problem was, Arizona gave away the first half after starting the game with an 11-0 lead. Oregon once again showed UA must improve its perimeter defense, as the Wildcats allowed the Ducks to go 7 for 11 from 3-point range and 25 of 52 (48 percent) overall.
It was the defense, Miller said, that wasn’t good enough to win.
“My biggest concern is that we’ve lost our defense,” Miller said in his postgame radio show. “(It’s) not lost forever, but since the second half of the Utah game (on Jan. 5), we’ve picked and chosen our effort level. And we didn’t do the things we needed to do to close that game out.”
And winning at home against Utah and trying to beat Oregon on the road are totally different things. Arizona pulled off the former — in dramatic fashion, taking the lead with less than 10 seconds left — but its luck ran out in Oregon, along with its best start in 80 years.
“You’re on the road at Oregon and pushing it, it’s a one-possession game,” Miller said of the turnover at the end. “It just didn’t work out.”
That Arizona’s dose of reality — a loss was looming after close-call wins over San Diego State, Colorado and Utah — hit on the road comes to no one’s surprise.
“We lost to a team that played an excellent game on their home court,” Miller said. “It’s not easy to win every game, but (winning) on the road in college basketball is very difficult. You have to be ready and execute.”
Arizona didn’t do so well enough, particularly late in the first half, when the Wildcats were outscored 19-5 over the final eight minutes.
“To win on the road, you have to be excellent,” Miller said. “We’ve won games with our offense where it was tonight, but from a defensive perspective, we really struggled.”
Oregon, meanwhile, was excellent. And you can’t exactly call it an ambush: The Ducks are on a 17-game home-court win streak, their best since 2001-02.
Miller said teams overcome adversity with a “collective will” — and not just on offense. While the Wildcats have shown a penchant for doing just that this season, on Thursday it came too late and against a team Miller said is good enough to be ranked.
“They’re a team that’s won 14 (games),” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “You could see their confidence even when they were down late.”
Arizona played more curious than aggressive, and at times, the offense appeared chaotic, taking too-quick or questionable shots. The Wildcats also had 14 turnovers — 10 on Oregon steals — that led to 21 points for the Ducks.
And there will be no chance for revenge, as this was the teams’ only meeting of the season. The Oregon schools will not make the trip to Tucson this season due to the league’s unbalanced schedule.
So Arizona must continue on to face Oregon State (10-4, 0-1), which is a bit more methodical than Oregon.
Miller said he spoke to the team at great length after Thursday night’s loss about the conference race and how very rare it is to get sweeps on the road.
“The best team in your league can get two,” Miller said. “To get one is the goal … You want to get one. And protect your own court. (Attention will) shift to Oregon State.
“You can’t love your team and your players when you win and then, when you lose a hard-fought game at Oregon … say they are terrible and you hate them. It doesn’t work like that.”