Oregon State began construction of its basketball team five years ago, when Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were, what 13?
Devon Collier, Roberto Nelson, Eric Moreland and Angus Brandt have been together in Beaver orange for so long, for more than 400 college games combined, that you’d swear the NCAA gave them an extra year of eligibility.
This was the year the Beavers would get you, get Arizona, here or there or anywhere. That 1-29 streak at McKale Center since 1984 would tumble. The Beavers have size, shooting and everything but their AARP cards. Nelson is the Pac-12’s leading scorer.
Yada, yada, yada, and with 7:59 remaining Sunday night, Arizona’s Jordin Mayes, who had only scored six points in the Pac-12 season — who had not even played in four conference games — had outscored Nelson, 7-6.
The crowd went nuts.
“JORDIN MAYES! ,” it shouted. “JORDIN MAYES!”
The Wildcats surgically removed the Beavers’ NCAA tournament aspirations in 40 minutes at McKale, winning 76-54, OSU’s worst loss of the season, one that prompted coach Craig Robinson to say:
“This is a good team here; it’s fun to watch when you aren’t getting beat by them.”
The story of the night wasn’t that the Beavers had fun, it was that the Wildcats chopped them off at the kneecaps. Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson combined for 33 points and 10 rebounds, showing absolutely no respect for their elders.
If you are an Oregon State fan, it was as disappointing as those 51- and 44-point losses during the McKale Center streak that has now grown to 1-30. It was a you’re-not-ready-for-the-big-time moment in living color.
It was just what the wounded Wildcats needed, and the triggermen were the freshmen, Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson.
“They were the two best players in the game, in my opinion,” said UA coach Sean Miller. “If you combine their statistics, they were the lion’s share of what we did tonight.”
Whoever guarded Nelson stopped him. Nick Johnson dogged him first. Then T. J. McConnell. Then Mayes.
Robinson seemed so exasperated that he kept Nelson on the bench, wearing a Gatorade towel over his head, for 10 minutes, many of them as the Wildcats pulled away.
In the final 20 seconds of the first half, trailing 37-27, Nelson dribbled 40 feet from the basket, determined to take a momentum-turning shot before the buzzer.
McConnell crept close to him, kneeling into a Ninja position, almost face-to-face. Nelson stared at him. McConnell couldn’t keep from smiling. Distracted, Nelson tossed a desperation 20-footer at the buzzer, missing badly, and then turned to referee Dick Cartmell and said, “I got fouled.”
No foul. No chance.
This isn’t meant to rub it in. The Beavers don’t deserve that, and when Arizona plays a return game at Gill Coliseum next month, it won’t be anything like spring break. It’s just that Sunday was the wrong time to play Arizona.
The Wildcats haven’t been able to breathe in their last four games, against Utah, Stanford, Cal and Oregon, and they had been punched in the gut when Brandon Ashley wrecked his foot.
Miller said Thursday’s survival against the Ducks “was the best thing that happened to us; we didn’t have as much confidence against Oregon as we did tonight.
“It’s almost like once we got through that game, and had a few days to talk about it and move on, we were much more confident.”
These are the dog days of college basketball, 24 games into a long season, and a freshman like Gordon shouldn’t be expected to be steady-as-she-goes. His recent shooting woes, which are probably the most-discussed topic around Tucson water coolers, have become a source of irritation.
You could hear it in Gordon’s voice after Sunday’s game.
“I know I’m a very capable shooter,” he said. “I’m just going to continue to shoot and have confidence in it.”
He missed his only free throw Sunday, dropping his season percentage to .418, a school-record low, but said: “I’m not going to let myself be a poor free-throw shooter; I know I’m going to be a great free-throw shooter, not just a good one.”
During the UA’s Sunday shoot-around, Gordon made 73 out of 100 foul shots, and then later made 37 of 50. Perhaps that spurred his offensive game Sunday, aided by some of his coach’s X and O scheming.
“As a coach, I have to help him get the ball in good position,” said Miller, whose plan was to get the ball to Gordon in the key area and not in mid-range jumper position. “When he gets it there, good luck. It’s really tough to play him.”
The Beavers couldn’t deal with Gordon around the basket, and Arizona found soft spots in Oregon State’s interior defense all night. Of the 14 field goals that Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson combined to make, 12 of them were in gimme range.
Given that kind of shooting efficiency, combined with its season-long defensive prowess, Arizona is going to be difficult to beat, even at Arizona State on Friday, and in the following week at Utah and Colorado.
Arizona hasn’t reinvented itself in the post-Ashley days, not yet, but Sunday’s performance was an indication that it is getting close.