Some of the same problems that plagued Oregon over the last couple of weeks reared their ugly head again on Thursday evening in front of a national television audience; turnovers, missed fastbreak opportunities, and stretches without scoring any points.
Fortunately, the Ducks saved themselves with gritty, lockdown defense in winning 68-63 to sweep the season series with UCLA and maintain their position in the top four of the conference.
A back-and-forth first half in which Will Richardson again struggled to find his offensive rhythm still ended with Oregon leading 35-30 thanks to stellar on-ball defense on the perimeter and a block party in the paint as Franck Kepnang swatted three straight shots in the span of about two minutes.
In the second half, Oregon began to separate themselves and pushed their lead as high as 13 at 48-35. While ESPN brought in chief bracketologist Joe Lunardi to explain where he currently had Oregon standing and commentator (and Oregon enthusiast) Bill Walton argued vehemently for the Ducks to be in the Big Dance, Oregon was making a statement of its own on the court.
But the Bruins were too good of a team to go away quietly, and a late charge led by spark plug Tyger Campbell pushed UCLA in front 54-53 with just over five minutes remaining in the game.
Dana Altman’s squad, however, didn’t panic, and some big shots by Jacob Young and De’Vion Harmon, who scored 14 and 17 points respectively, put Oregon back on top. Hard-nosed defense then kept them ahead to finish off the game, as UCLA could hardly get any decent looks at the basket in the final minutes.
This was the kind of effort Oregon had been looking for, and it was fueled by the crowd at Matthew Knight Arena, particularly the Pit Crew, who filled the student section to capacity, kept the noise going throughout the game, and stormed the court to celebrate with the players after the final buzzer.
The Ducks next welcome USC, another Top 15 program, to Eugene on Saturday evening in front of another ESPN nationwide telecast. If Oregon can show up with the same defensive intensity it did against UCLA, they could achieve a sweep of the LA schools as well as back-to-back victories over highly ranked teams in the same weekend.
That could be exactly the kind of momentum needed for a run at the Pac-12 Tournament championship in a couple weeks, but the Ducks have to stay focused.