Last week, with its season on the fringe, Oregon pulled off consecutive victories against the Arizona schools — including a 28-point victory over the Sun Devils, the Pac-12’s second place team.
With the regular season finale three days away against the Pac-12’s top team in Washington, the Ducks had to make sure to not look past lowly Washington State — a perfect trap game to ruin any momentum Oregon had picked up over the last week.
Turns out Oregon fans didn’t have to fret as a balanced team effort, led by senior Paul White’s career-high in points, led the Ducks to a 72-61 victory over the Cougars. With the win, Oregon (18-12) now sits in a tie for fifth place in conference at 9-8 — a longshot for a top-four seed and first round bye in next week’s Pac-12 tournament.
"We don't have control over it, so we just got to go play — if it happens, it happens but it doesn't happen if we don't win on Saturday," Oregon head coach Dana Altman said of a top-four finish. "All we need to be focused on is playing well at Washington and find a way to win."
More than White’s offense, it was Oregon’s team defense that led the way. The Ducks forced 17 Cougars turnovers and outscored them 20-0 in points off turnovers.
"I thought our activity was pretty good, the difference in the game was the points off turnovers," Altman said. "We only had 10 and they had 17, we had seven extra possessions and we were able to score in transition. So 20-0 points off turnovers was the difference in the game."
Most importantly, the Ducks held Pac-12 leading scorer Robert Franks to 16 points on 3-of-13 shooting — making him get half of his points from the free throw line. The Ducks also held CJ Elleby and Marcus Pollard (combined 25 points in previous meeting) to a combined 14 points.
"Defensively (controlling) Franks was the big key, he is such a talented player and we didn't want to give him too many looks," Altman said. “For the most part I thought it was a pretty good effort."
White’s 21-point effort came on an efficient 8-of-13 shooting, including 4-of-5 from beyond the arc — but none was bigger than his dagger three-pointer with 3:42 left to play.
The Ducks were largely in control for most of the second half, but a late Cougar run cut the deficit to 13 and have the home crowd back into the game, igniting thoughts of Oregon’s recent inability to close out games. Instead, White’s three-pointer of an assists from Payton Pritchard silenced the crowd and sent the Ducks into the final media timeout with the confidence to hold on.
"That was a big shot, they messed up a switch there and gave him a pretty good look," Altman said. "I thought we did some good things but Paul shooting it that well and V.B.J. off the bench shooting it that well really gave us a big lift."
Victor Bailey Jr. led an outstanding effort from the bench players with 14 points while Will Richardson added 11, contributing to Oregon’s 31 bench points.
White came out hot from the beginning, knocking down a three-pointer on the Ducks opening possession — but Washington State rattled off the next five points for the early lead.
Oregon began to pull away following a Richardson three-pointer from the corner, giving the Ducks a 17-16 lead just under 12 minutes into the first half — Richardson’s bucket broke the spell as Pritchard and White had scored all the points up to that point.
The Ducks slowly built their lead the rest of the way, turning a one-point lead into a 37-26 advantage as Oregon scored on five consecutive possessions the first four coming on made three-pointers.
Washington State (11-19, 4-13 Pac-12) appeared to gain momentum late in the half when an Elleby layup cut the deficit to double digits, but Pritchard’s running layup beat the buzzer, giving the Ducks a 41-30 lead at the break.
The Cougars opened the second half with back-to-back buckets to cut their deficit to six, but Oregon’s response was an 18-6 run over the next nine minutes for a 59-41 lead, the largest of the game.
Pritchard finished with 15 points and seven assists, leading the Oregon offense by controlling the tempo and pace of the game.
Oregon wraps up the regular season with a big game against Washington (24-6, 15-2 Pac-12) on Saturday night — tipoff is set for 7 p.m. and will air on ESPN.