For the first time this season, a wisp of resignation swept through McKale Center. Oregon led 60-55. It seemed like 60-45.
Sean Miller had not only used his final timeout, he had split his pants, demonstrative, insisting he would like to have entered the game himself to help his team rebound with more force.
“My body and my pants met up and, boom,” he said. “It was a disaster.”
But on a night the Wildcats shoot so poorly it didn’t seem possible they could ever get to 61, not in the final 3:57, not on a night that Oregon’s best defense had been to send an Arizona player to the foul line.
It wasn’t a disaster, but if you want plot, this one has thickened.
When the Wildcats absolutely, positively needed someone to stick a jumper, they went to T.J. McConnell, who was 1 for 8 afield as the clock ticked toward 1:30.
It was pick-your-poison time. Everyone in the capacity crowd of 14,545 swallowed hard.
McConnell had spent the night shooting an agonizing series of lip-outs, spin-outs and in-and-outs. Oregon led 60-59 until his three-pointer punctured the Ducks.
The Ducks were flattened.
“Everyone was telling me to keep shooting,” McConnell said after Arizona’s improbable 67-65 victory. “Nick (Johnson) came up and was telling me, ‘You’re going to make the next one.’ When it left my hand, I knew it would go in.”
After what had gone on Thursday night, McConnell might have been the only one who thought that.
Miller saw it a bit differently. He thought McConnell’s earlier three-point attempts had been from too far out, from NBA distance.
Such is the fragility of the Brandon Ashley-less Wildcats. A few inches behind the three-point line were the margin of difference Thursday.
For 38 minutes, the Ducks did everything they needed to do to beat the No. 2 Wildcats, regain their NCAA tournament footing and rescue their recently beat-up reputation. They out-rebounded the Wildcats, they made more field goals, more three-pointers and became the first to take advantage of a lineup minus Ashley.
“I thought we were in pretty good shape,” said Oregon coach Dana Altman. “But we just didn’t finish it. … It hurts having an opportunity and not being able to finish.”
The Ducks left the court mumbling to themselves the same way Stanford did a week ago, and Utah a week earlier.
At 22-1, Arizona is anything but a team in shambles, but you should prepare yourself for more of the same as Miller re-jiggers his machinery.
“It’s going to take some time,” he said. “Given that time, we’ll regain some things that we had. But post-Brandon, we’re moving toward figuring out who we’re going to become.”
He termed Thursday’s game “our best victory of the season, based on how the game went and what the game means.”
In its era as an elite team, Arizona has only been in this type of one-man-down jam once. In 2000, center Loren Woods missed the final six games of the regular season. Arizona went 3-3 but still got a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament even though it was down to six scholarship players and deploying 6-foot-6-inch Justin Wessel as its starting center.
It ultimately cost dearly; Arizona lost in the second round of the NCAAs to eighth-seeded Wisconsin.
It’s not that this UA team isn’t used to a struggle.
“I consider this the image of our team,” Johnson said Thursday, a reference to a series of close victories. “We’ve battled through adversity. It’s just the story with us. Our defense down the stretch is what we rely on.”
Miller’s lone concession Thursday was that he knows shooting 19-for-35 from the foul line is a recipe for disaster.
“When you’re 19-for-35 from the line, it’s hard to overcome,” he said. “It’s going to do us in if we don’t improve.”
Aaron Gordon missed nine of his 11 shots. It has become the elephant in the room. Miller’s power of positive thinking has been applied.
“Aaron is a better free-throw shooter than he’s showing,” the coach said. “And I believe he’s going to hit his stride.”
For three months, Arizona was in the passing lane, 75 mph, with nothing in front of it but open highway. It was almost to the point that someone had queued up “One Shining Moment,” a rehearsal for the anticipation of March.
But on Saturday night at Cal’s Haas Pavilion, the “check engine” light illuminated. Ashley was gone. Everything changed.
“We’re not a team that’s going to win 90-70 every third game,” Miller said. “That’s not who we are. I believe we are still a very good team, with an upside to really get better as we’re plugging players into different roles.”
Arizona has shot .400, .323, .360 and .400 in its last four games. Much of it is that Gordon is also struggling from the field; he has shot a cumulative 11-for-42 from the field in that stretch.
And yet somehow the Wildcats went 3-1. Talk about living on the edge.
But it could be worse. You could be the Ducks, who have lost seven of their last nine games.
“It’s the best game we’ve played all year,” Oregon’s Joseph Young said.
And, in some ways, it was Arizona’s, too.