EUGENE, Ore. - The way Arizona tiptoed its way through an unbeaten half-season, the script for the final scene Thursday was practically written.
During their 70-66 loss at Oregon, the Wildcats trailed by just three points, with the ball and 18 seconds left to win or tie the game.
So when UA guard Nick Johnson drove the ball into the Ducks' defense as the seconds ticked down to single digits, it was easy to imagine a three-pointer and a UA win in overtime. Maybe even a three-pointer and a foul, making an improbable four-point play.
Something, anything, that would give the Wildcats another dizzying win, after they pulled out three straight nail-biters.
But nothing like that happened. The Wildcats (14-1, 2-1 Pac-12) lost their first game of the season Thursday after Johnson turned the ball over in traffic, though the loss had much more to do with Oregon's game-changing 21-3 first-half run and the attendant lack of Arizona defense during that time frame.
The surprise this time was not that UA won, but that it came back from 13 points down in the second half in a hostile road environment to make it a game they had a chance to win.
"We've done it three times before," Johnson said. "We came back from a double-digit deficits in a few minutes. We definitely didn't give up, and we knew we could do it. But this time we fell short."
Johnson, the shot-blocking hero in UA's Diamond Head Classic victory over San Diego State on Dec. 25, was also the face of the last key play this time. He rebounded a missed Oregon shot with 18 seconds left and immediately raced upcourt.
But when Johnson drove into traffic, the ball spilled out, and Oregon's Johnathan Loyd picked it up, later hitting the second of two free throws to seal the Ducks' win.
"I just pushed the ball, and I think three guys collapsed on me," Johnson said. "I should have kicked it out. It wasn't a rush, but I don't know."
It was a difficult situation, the way UA coach Sean Miller described it.
"I think part of what hurt him on that play is when you're down three, it's not easy on a full-speed play like that because it wasn't a free throw (Johnson rebounded from), it was a rebound," Miller said. "It was, 'Do I go for a three? Do I go for a two?' And it's hard. You can make the case to choose one or the other there. But I have no problem with that turnover."
The Wildcats had 14 turnovers overall, two more than the maximum Miller has been shooting for, and Oregon (13-2, 2-0) scored 21 points off them, nine more than the Wildcats were able to score off the Ducks' 12 turnovers.
But that wasn't what bugged Miller the most. It was a Wildcat defense that allowed Oregon to shoot 56.7 percent from the field in the first half that he couldn't get out of his head. Even after UA tightened up to allow Oregon just 36.4 percent shooting in the second half, when the Wildcats made their comeback.
To Miller, it was all too much like the way Utah shot 51.9 percent in the second half of UA's 60-57 win last Saturday at McKale Center.
"My biggest concern leaving this game was a similar concern I had after the Utah game, in that our defense has really slipped," Miller said. "I'm careful how I say it because it's been a great strength of our team. … It's just overwhelming in that they shoot 57 percent and have three or four turnovers. It's tough to beat a good team like that on the road."
That's the difference. While McKale Center fans helped will the Wildcats to the win over Utah, this time there were 9,544 giddy fans anticipating Oregon's biggest win of the season.
"Of course this was a tougher deal - a Pac-12 game on the road, their students were there, and you have to make sure everybody understands that," said forward Solomon Hill, who had 16 points while Mark Lyons led UA with 21. "We just can't come back in the second half and get into a close game and pull out a win. Oregon's a good team, and they made us pay for it tonight."
While the Ducks' fans spilled on to the Matt Knight Arena floor to celebrate, in Hill's mind they had not really beaten an undefeated team. There was that controversial ruling that disallowed a would-be game-winner by Colorado last week, plus close calls that UA pulled out against Utah, SDSU and Florida in the past month.
There was a lucky streak that, to Hill, wasn't ever completely real. The Wildcats are just a team that now has to deal with Oregon State on Saturday night in an attempt to get a weekend split.
That's the bottom line.
"I feel like we weren't undefeated to begin with," Hill said. "I feel like we had a couple losses. That's how the world looked at us, and that's how the media looked at us. So it's good to finally get the media monkey off our back. Now we have a chance to just focus back on Pac-12 play."
• What: No. 4 Arizona at Oregon St.
• When: 6 p.m. Saturday
• TV: ESPNU
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM