EUGENE, Ore. — Those crazy-good shooting games of recent weeks aside, the Arizona Wildcats didn’t build one of their best-ever regular seasons on a jump shot.
They did it by locking down opponents with the country’s most efficient defense, by taking decent care of the ball and by rebounding consistently well, over and over.
So while there’s no doubt that the Wildcats’ 2-for-11 shooting from three-point range didn’t help in a 64-57 loss at Oregon on Saturday, this is what really stuck with them: Oregon hit 10 three-pointers, out-rebounded the Wildcats by eight in the second half and helped force nine UA turnovers in the first half.
Those issues were critical on a day when Oregon was not only hosting a wild Senior Day but also fighting to make sure it gets in the NCAA tournament field.
“They were a highly motivated group and with that I thought we had to be at our best, and we weren’t,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “They’re a difficult matchup in terms of their perimeter. The fact that they made 10 threes against our defense — that hasn’t happened all year. No question that was a huge difference in our game. Then nine turnovers going into the (second half).”
Arizona led most of the game and jumped out to a 44-36 lead with 13:24 left in the second half, but three-pointers from Mike Moser and Jason Calliste pulled the Ducks within two. The Ducks later had a three from Joseph Young and layup from Johnathan Loyd to tie it at 50 with five minutes to go.
While all that was going on, the Ducks were out-rebounding UA. That’s when the difference in emotion between the two teams may have been at its most obvious: The Ducks were beating UA on the boards and, Miller said, getting just enough space to get off three-point shots.
“You have to close out on such an extreme level that his attempt isn’t there. He can’t shoot it. He has to pass or go by you,” Miller said. “You have to be so responsible. Ten threes is a lot to give up and rebounding in the second half — they beat us to a couple of balls and they were flying around the court.”
The quick transition from an eight-point lead to just two, with the threes from Moser and Calliste, may have burned Miller the most.
“We gave up back-to-back threes to players we knew were going to shoot the three,” Miller said. “We weren’t responsible enough, desperate enough to take away those threes. Having an eight-point lead going to two almost at the snap of your finger was disappointing, because that was something we’ve prided ourselves on all year.”
From there, the momentum was clearly Oregon’s and the Ducks weren’t going to give it up.
Just as the sold-out Matthew Knight Arena really started rolling, Calliste hit a 19-footer while drawing a foul from Kaleb Tarczewski and made the ensuring free throw to give Oregon a 53-51 lead, its first since the first 1:20 of the game.
Subsequent threes from Calliste and Loyd put Oregon up
59-51 with 2:32 left and the Ducks hung on from there.
Oregon’s Ben Carter blocked a shot from Nick Johnson with 32 seconds left and the Ducks up 59-54.
The loss, Arizona’s first since ASU beat the Wildcats in double overtime on Feb. 14, wound up the Wildcats’ regular season at 28-3 and 15-3 in the Pac-12. It was Arizona’s best conference finish since 2002-03, when UA went 17-1.
“It feels good to be part of Arizona history and do something that not too many teams have done,” Johnson said.
“We’re just trying to live up to expectations and live the Arizona way.”
As the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 tournament, the Wildcats will play either No. 8 Utah or No. 9 Washington on Thursday at noon in the Pac-12 tournament. The Utes and Huskies, who tied for eighth place at 9-9, will meet in a first-round game on Wednesday at noon.
Oregon finished at 22-8 and 10-8, all but having clinched an NCAA tournament berth. The Ducks earned the No. 7 seed in the Pac-12 tournament after finishing in a five-way tie for third place.
In the first half, Arizona committed nine turnovers, four in its final five first-half possessions, to nearly spoil their early success.
The Wildcats led the Ducks by up to 12 points in the first half but held just a 31-29 halftime lead despite shooting 48 percent and out-rebounding the Ducks by eight.
A three-pointer from Calliste nine seconds before halftime cut Arizona’s lead to two points at the half.
“We knew coming in it wasn’t going to be easy,” Johnson said. “They’ve given us trouble here before. They hit shots and made big plays. It’s the last game for their seniors, and they’re fighting for their tournament berth, so guys are in zones.”
Aaron Gordon led the Wildcats with 21 points, though he was 0 for 4 from three-point range. Calliste led Oregon with 18 points on 4-for-5 three-point shooting off the bench.