EUGENE, Ore. — About 10 minutes after the Wildcats lost in overtime at Oregon on Thursday, Sean Miller stormed out of the UA locker room to head to his radio show, using some pretty colorful language to describe his displeasure with the evening’s officiating.
He was considerably more measured during his postgame interview, but still made it clear that, among other things, he thought Zeke Nnaji was fouled on the 16-footer he took near the end of regulation.
“Didn't hit the rim,” he said of Nnaji's uncharacteristically well off-the-mark shot. “That could have been a foul but they didn't call it.”
Miller probably had a better view of the play than those of us in the media, who were up high on the opposite end of the floor. We couldn’t tell. So I asked Miller if he thought Oregon had an arm on Nnaji or something.
“Yeah,” Miller said. “They hit him. But the call’s either going to be made or it wasn't, and it wasn't made, so … ”
(Edited to add: After watching the ESPN replay early Friday morning, I thought the angle shown made it appear that Payton Pritchard blocked the ball first while possibly swiping Nnaji's arm, though Bill Walton said it looked like "hand-in-wrist." In any case, ESPN showed Miller immediately going to official Verne Harris to angrily protest.)
However you viewed them, the calls were just one of many factors down the stretch of each half and in overtime that could have gone either way.
Miller found they just went more often Oregon’s way … because the Ducks made them go their way.
“There's six to eight plays in that game and some of them could have been at the end of the first half or beginning of the second half … the loose balls, a 50-50 ball, a defensive rebound and offensive rebound where the ball’s kind of traveling through our hands.
“Oregon got more of those plays, made more of those plays, and in a game like the one we just played in that really, in many ways can decide it.
“Did we make a lot of great plays? No doubt. But those 6-8 plays — rebounding, scrum for the ball, loose balls at the top of the key … it just seemed like they were better than us in those plays and, and it's tough because we played with great effort, certainly played well enough to win but we didn't.”
That was Miller’s message to the team, too. Good effort still isn’t always good enough.
“You can play hard and lose,” guard Dylan Smith said, essentially telling reporters what Miller would a few minutes later. “That’s the biggest lesson to learn. We've got a lot of young guys who played their hearts out. We still came up short. But it goes to show that so many plays in the game, missed free throws and things like that, can affect the game.”
Smith, the lone player UA made available for comment, said he didn’t think the big moment on the road was a factor against the Wildcats’ younger players. As it turned out, Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Nnaji were again their most productive players.
“If anything, I thought it helped make them play better,” Smith said. “They made some plays they normally don’t make. They played as hard as they could. It was just a tough loss.”
Sometimes, agonizingly for the Wildcats, good effort was followed by not quite enough.
For example, after Green intercepted an Oregon pass and drove to the bucket for a tricky layup to give UA a 73-72 lead with 21 seconds left, Oregon’s Will Richardson quickly broke free to work through a UA defense that wasn’t fully set up and score inside.
“I knew the best chance we had was get it out of the net and go,” Richardson said. “They’re a young team so they’re not used to getting back without celebrating. I just knew it was now or never.”
But Richardson didn’t mess around after his shot. He was the guy five seconds later who was back on defense to block Dylan Smith after Smith raced immediately downcourt for a layup.
The Wildcats retained possession after Smith was blocked, but Nico Mannion then missed an eight-foot floater from the left side of the paint and, after UA rebounded that one and the ball went out of bounds on Oregon, Mannion couldn’t get his inbounds pass to Green. Oregon’s Payton Pritchard then recovered the ball to end the game.
It was crazy, just the way Richardson says he likes it.
“I’ve been playing clutch games for a long time,” Richardson said. “I actually like it better when it’s close because it’s do or die and you can’t miss.”
Richardson finished with a career-high 21 points on 7 for 16 shooting with five rebounds and four assists in 37 minutes. He entered the game averaging 10.4 points while shooting 48.4% overall and 54.5% from 3-point range.
“He's been pretty good all year for us,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “He was a little more aggressive tonight but if you track his year, he's been as consistent as anybody for us. In fact, 7 for 16 for him is below his average so he's been really good. Defensively he's been pretty solid. He made a mistake, couple times let Nico (Mannion) go left, but Will’s been invaluable to our team this year. He's done a tremendous job.”
Speaking of Mannion, Altman is well aware that the freshman guard won’t be back for another game at Matthew Knight Arena.
In a matchup of premier Pac-12 point guards — a one-and-done freshman against a four-year starter — Mannion had 20 points on 9-for-17 shooting while posting three assists to six turnovers, while Pritchard had 18 points on 6-for-21 shooting with six assists to four turnovers.
“I'm glad he's one gonna be there one” year, Altman sad. “That's the advantage, having Payton for four. But Nico’s really talented.”
Josh Green, meanwhile, had 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting while getting five rebounds and hitting 2 of 4 from 3-point range.
“Josh is a fun player to watch,” Miller said. “He thrives in transition and one of the things we're really trying to get him to do is not worry just about his scoring or shooting, but his rebounding on offense and defense, being a distributor, and defensively being able to guard the variety of players that are in the Pac-12.”
Miller said he was actually pretty happy with all four of his freshmen, with center Christian Koloko coming off the bench to get four rebounds in 10 minutes.
One guy Miller wasn’t so pleased with was center Chase Jeter, who played only 12 minutes and none at all after the first seven minutes of the second half.
“He didn’t get it done,” Miller said.
It was reminiscent of how Miller didn’t play either Smith or Ira Lee for the entire second half on Dec. 21 against St. John’s, with the additional depth of this season’s team allowing Miller to have a quick (or permanent) hook if needed.
“We're only playing guys who are going to help us win the game, and if you're not up to the task, we're moving on to the next player,” Miller said. “We did it when we played St John's and that's fair when you have a highly competitive environment every day, and you have a lot of players on the team that can do things and contribute.
"We went tonight with the guys we thought gave us a chance to win. And we had a chance to win.”