TUCSON, Ariz. — Oregon could feel the tide shifting. Arizona had found an offensive rhythm, the fans inside McKale Center rising and roaring with each made shot.
Unlike a week earlier, when they blew a seemingly-insurmountable lead against UCLA, the Ducks turned back the charge and earned a win in one of college basketball’s toughest environments.
Call it a lesson learned.
Dominant defensively early and poised down the stretch, Oregon played a second straight solid all-around game since losing to the Bruins, holding off Arizona 59-54 Thursday night.
Paul White scored 16 points and Victor Bailey Jr. added 13 for the Ducks, who blew an eight-point lead in the final 45 seconds against UCLA.
“UCLA helped us, maybe getting punched in the face, guys knowing they need to step up,” Bailey said.
The once-fast Ducks have had to slow down in recent games due to a string of injuries, relying on their defense rather than outscoring opponents.
The Ducks still stuck to their shut-them-down game plan, hounding Arizona (13-5, 4-1) into one miss after another while building a 13-point lead midway through in the second half.
The Wildcats found an offensive rhythm and pulled within 55-51 on Dylan Smith‘s 3-pointer with 1:24 left. Smith hit another 3 to get Arizona within 57-54 with four seconds left, but Payton Pritchard hit two free throws to seal it.
Chase Jeter had 12 points and 10 rebounds for Arizona, which shot 36 percent and went 6 for 22 from the 3-point arc.
“You have to give their defense credit,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We were out of sorts, never could get into an offensive rhythm. Several of our guys had a tough night shooting it.”
Arizona took control of the early Pac-12 race after an uneven run through its nonconference schedule. The Wildcats opened conference play with wins over Colorado and Utah at home and had a road sweep of the Bay Area schools last week.
The Ducks had a rough start to the Pac-12, losing to rival Oregon State and blowing the big lead in an overtime loss to UCLA. Oregon bounced back with a 21-point win over USC in one of its best all-around games of the season.
The Ducks were good on the defensive end against Arizona, holding the Wildcats without a field goal for nearly eight minutes while building a nine-point lead. Oregon held Arizona to 23 points, 8-of-27 shooting, including 2 for 11 from the 3-point arc and forced nine turnovers to lead by eight at halftime.
“The first eight minutes or so, we took some tough, challenged 3s,” Miller said. “We had gotten away from that and it served us well. At halftime I would say we didn’t have nine turnovers, we really had 14 because we took five just horrible, challenged, selfish shots.”
The defensive shutdown continued to start the second half. Arizona missed 11 of its first 12 shots and Oregon stretched the lead to 39-26.
After more than 30 minutes of struggling, the Wildcats finally found a way to solve Oregon’s defense, trimming the Ducks lead to 45-41 with eight minutes left.
It didn’t last. Arizona had a scoreless drought of more than three minutes and Oregon stretched the lead to nine, then held the Wildcats off down the stretch.
“It was big for us to make big plays on the defensive end and offensive end,” White said.
Oregon has turned up its defense at just the right time -outside of the UCLA game- to keep itself in the Pac-12 race.
Arizona had trouble with Oregon’s length inside and struggled to get shots to fall from the perimeter in another uneven offensive performance.
Wooten’s return gave the Ducks a lift. Wearing a clear mask to protect his jaw, he had five points and seven rebounds in 25 high-energy minutes.
“It’s weird when he’s not out there and when he’s out there, you see somebody jumping 100 feet in the air,” Bailey said. “It’s always good to have Kenny out there.”
Oregon plays at Arizona State on Saturday.
Arizona hosts Oregon State on Saturday.