It’s said that defense wins championships. If that’s true, then it finally seems that Oregon is going to live up to its preseason billing.
Months after being picked to win the Pac-12 conference, and being ranked as high as No. 11 nationally, the Ducks struggled through the preseason and first two games of conference play.
A win last week against USC showed how potent Oregon could offensively, but if the Ducks were going to continue their progress, it would need to be defensively.
Progress was made Thursday night as the Ducks pressured Arizona all night into contested shots, eventually leaving the McKale Center with a 59-54 upset and high hopes in the Pac-12.
"On the road you have to scramble and find a way to get it done and our guys never quit... everyone knows this is a tough place to play," Oregon head coach Dana Altman said. "We had 42 deflections, which is always a good number for us — we made some key plays when we needed to.”
Senior Paul White led the way for Oregon (11-6, 2-2 Pac-12) offensively, finishing with 16 points and five rebounds. Victor Bailey Jr. added 13 points, 10 of which came in the first half when he knocked 2-of-4 from deep to keep the Ducks ahead.
Buoyed by the return of Kenny Wooten (broken jaw), the Ducks came out with intensity and focus early-on that Arizona (13-5, 4-1 Pac-12) was unable to match. Wooten’s rim-protecting abilities allowed the Oregon guards to play in the passing lanes and get more deflections and steals.
The Ducks forced nine turnovers in the half while Wooten blocked or altered many shots at the rim. The biggest turnover came on the final possession, with Oregon leading and the Wildcats having a chance to cut it to a one-score game. But Payton Pritchard picked the pocket of Arizona point guard Justin Coleman before going coast-to-coast for a layup at the buzzer, giving the Ducks the momentum and a 31-23 lead.
"You have to give their defense credit," Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. "We were out of sorts, never could get into an offensive rhythm — several of our guys had a tough night shooting it."
Oregon continued its defensive prowess in the second half, forcing the Wildcats into misses on 11 of their first 12 possessions — allowing the Ducks to jump out to a 39-26 lead with 14 minutes to play following a White three-pointer.
But Arizona found its footing as on offense as the Ducks went cold from the field, allowing a 17-8 run by the Wildcats to make the score 47-43. Oregon pushed the lead back to 52-43 before Arizona gave the Ducks one final score.
A quick 5-0 run punctuated by a Brandon Randolph (2-for-9 from the field) three-pointer gave the Wildcats hope. But rather another collapse like the Ducks had against UCLA a week earlier, Bailey responded with a huge three-pointer for Oregon on an assist by Pritchard to stop the bleeding.
"UCLA helped us, maybe getting punched in the face, guys knowing they need to step up," Bailey said.
Dylan Smith hit another three-pointer for the Wildcats on the next possession, cutting the deficit to four.
Back-to-back misses by Pritchard gave the Wildcats another chance but Brandon Williams missed a deep three-pointer. Louis King (10 points, nine rebounds) grabbed the rebound and knocked down two free throws with 17 seconds to secure the win.
King, who’s been Oregon’s primary offensive weapon in conference play, struggled shooting the ball. But, his defense on Randolph was the key to victory for the Ducks. He held Randolph to 10 points below his average, often using his length and athleticism to bother Randolph and rarely give him a clean look.
For the game, Oregon held Arizona to 36.5-percent (19-for-52) from the field and 27.3-percent (6-for-22) from beyond the arc. The first half was a defensive clinic for the Ducks, limiting the Wildcats 29.6-percent (8-of-27) from the field and 18.2-percent (2-of-11) from three-point territory.
The Ducks will try to make it a sweep of the Arizona schools when they travel to Tempe to play Arizona State (12-5, 3-2 Pac-12) on Saturday. Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m.