CORVALLIS, Ore. - So what else is new, right? Oregon State drew a little blood, its second-largest crowd of the season rose to its feet and screamed bloody murder, and rule No. 1 of March basketball was applied:
When you hit the road, the road hits back.
You’ve got to have a mission if you’re going to be any good, and the Beavers made it plain from Wednesday’s pre-tipoff video that they weren’t going to go quietly.
The video featured a train barreling down the tracks outside Gill Coliseum and OSU coach Craig Robinson’s game plan was about as subtle as a punch in the nose. Each time the Beavers would do something good, a shrill train whistle would sound.
Get outta the way, right?
The Beavers wouldn’t wait for the nation’s No. 3 team to make a mistake, they would be the aggressor and try to beat Arizona inside, hitting the glass, which had not worked for anybody this year, not even Arizona State.
Oregon State out-rebounded the Wildcats 43-34 and didn’t back off.
“We were ready to play, but they just punished us inside on the glass,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
But in the end, as good teams often do, the Wildcats didn’t beat OSU as much as they let the Beavers beat themselves.
Arizona won 74-69 the same way it won earlier road tests at Stanford, UCLA, Utah, you name it. Basketball isn’t a lot different from golf at its core; fewer mistakes usually wins.
“I don’t think playing the No. 3 team messed us up,” said OSU’s Roberto Nelson. “I think it motivated us.”
The F word — fatigue — didn’t apply on Wednesday. You can’t blame the close nature of the game on that.
Arizona gathered in a conference room at its campus hotel, in game gear, at 5:30 p.m. The bus wouldn’t leave until 6. Every player was on the bus by 5:45. At 6, Sean Miller walked purposefully, into the rain, his game face on.
Nor did the Wildcats exhibit a hangover from Sunday’s Pac-12-clinching celebration. Nobody is invincible at this late day, and that sinks in even if you’re secluded in the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium, shooting jumpers until midnight.
In what seems like the last 48 hours, Duke lost to Wake Forest, Kansas to Oklahoma State, Creighton to Xavier, Kentucky to South Carolina and Michigan State to Illinois.
Oregon State beating Arizona wouldn’t rate much more than a shrug after all of that. Remember how scary Syracuse used to be?
No, it wasn’t the F-word that made it a tie at 61 in the final six minutes. Arizona, it was the D-word. Desperation.
The Beavers have the core of an NCAA tournament team, especially shooting guard Roberto Nelson and bigs Devon Collier, Angus Brandt and Eric Moreland. If you toss in some late-season desperation, and the most vocal home crowd of the year (not counting a January victory over the rival Oregon Ducks), it wasn’t a surprise that Wednesday’s game would be painted on an Orange canvas.
Did anyone predict a heretofore unknown freshman named Hallice Cooke would be drilling three-pointers? Hallice Cooke?
And don’t get started on Malcolm Duvivier going strong to the hoop for a couple of artistic layups. Yes, Duvivier.
But in the end it was Nelson, of all people, who couldn’t deliver for the Beavers.
On a night Nick Johnson surely put a lock on the Pac-12 Player of the Year trophy, Nelson scored 25, a career high.
But in the fire, the final six minutes, Nelson, an 84 percent foul shooter, missed three free throws. He was called for a charging foul when he lost control and bulled into Johnson. He threw a wobbly pass that was intercepted by Aaron Gordon. And he missed two three-pointers that might have taken the game to the wire.
Nelson is the league’s top scorer, a fifth-year senior, but he tried to do too much Wednesday, and his teammates watched it blow up in his face. He needed 22 shots to get his 25 points; Johnson needed 18.
Nelson had six turnovers. The entire UA team had a mere eight. So much for rebounding.
“You just got to make those free throws,” said Nelson. “Especially in the last five minutes.”
Once the UA reached its locker room, Miller congratulated his team for playing with a purpose, even though the league title had been put in the trophy case 72 hours earlier. They all applauded, a noise that could be heard down the corridor in the media room.
The Beavers have a well-chronicled history against heavily favored Arizona teams at Gill Coliseum.
In 1998, the 23-2 UA needed a miracle finish and a bucket by Miles Simon to win 71-70.
In 1999, a sellout crowd of 10,024 stormed the court when the Beavers won in the final three seconds 60-59.
And in 2000, No. 3 Arizona — sound familiar? — lost 70-69 at Gill in another rush-the-court finish.
But on Wednesday there was no court-storming. Arizona grinded out its 28th victory in 30 games and took the Beavers’ train off the tracks.