No. 14 Arizona played with some things it hadn’t played with much all season: grit, inspiration and domination against Oregon on Saturday night
But then, it turned into what it sometimes is a defenseless, sometimes lost team that can’t hold a lead or the game. It hasn’t happened often but it has happened enough.
They are who they are – apparently no matter who coaches them.
In a game and day that assistant coach Mark Phelps said was “an emotional time”, Arizona “responded in a terrific way.”
They played well enough for moments where you thought they’d be fine behind the coaching of Lorenzo Romar, who filled in for Sean Miller who was not in the building after what could be dubbed a suspension from his duties. For how long that happens is anyone’s guess.
When asked if he thought he’d be the coach for the remainder of the season, Romar told reporters he didn’t know. It was unclear if Miller was still with the team in Oregon, in Tucson or meeting somewhere with his attorneys at some undisclosed site.
That’s what this season has come to for Arizona with just one week left in the regular season. The season started with the FBI chaos and is ending with it as UA is in the center of the storm after an ESPN story on Friday that said Miller had been heard on FBI wiretaps discussing a $100,000 payment (to someone) for the services of Deandre Ayton.
All parties have denied the allegation with Miller saying he will be “vindicated.”
And, oh, by the way, Arizona fell 98-93 in overtime in a valiant effort. UA is 22-7 and 12-4 in the Pac-12.
“It’s a situation that was tough if our leader isn’t out there,” Romar told reporters after the game. “We haven’t done anything without him being there so it’s tough.”
For most of the first half and parts of the second, Arizona looked like it might be able to get a sweep of the Oregon schools for the first time in the Miller era. Arizona was up by 13 and Ayton was playing like a man-child. He was so aggressive at the end of the first half he barked at the Oregon students, who had been chanting at him all game.
“I thought our guys were phenomenal and how we came out in the beginning of that game,” Romar said
Ayton finished with 28 points and 18 rebounds and looked unstoppable for about 35 minutes of the game.
“I think he’s getting through it,” Romar said when asked about how Ayton is handling the apparent tough times. “If you looked at his play tonight it seemed like he handled it pretty well.”
Oregon denied him the ball and shots become rare. He did not make a field goal in the last 15:51 of the game. It wasn’t until he took a 3-pointer late in overtime that he even touched the ball in the final minutes.
That proved to be crucial down the stretch. Well, that and 17 turnovers that helped the Ducks rally with a 13-0 run to get back in the game and eventually take the lead. It’s been one of Arizona’s most consistent problems – getting a double-digit lead only to see it disappear late in the game.
“Turnovers and offensive rebounds allowed them to take 15 more shots than we did,” said assistant coach Mark Phelps on the team’s postgame radio show. “They were relentless.”
With 17:05 left, Arizona held a 53-40 lead and was playing some of its best basketball on the road this season, but then Oregon made its rally as it pressured UA fullcourt. Admittedly, Phelps said “that wore on us.”
It didn’t help that Arizona played without Allonzo Trier and Ira Lee for the second consecutive time. Trier is out after the NCAA said he tested positive for PEDs for the second time in as many years, finding a miniscule amount in his system. He won’t be able to return until it’s completely out of his system. Lee was out with a concussion.
Despite being down players, Arizona came out inspired and aggressive, jumping on the Ducks 31-19 early in the first half. Oregon got back in it at the half, 43-37, before Arizona rallied again for a double-digit lead.
“The guys are together (and) we are a true family and we’re pulling for each other,” Phelps said despite the loss. “We are lifting each other up. It’s a pleasure to be around our guys right now. They have great togetherness … they will continue to fight.”