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Dana Altman went for a drive, N'Faly Dante got pissed and maybe there's life left to this season
Of course Oregon beat No. 9 Arizona. But can the Ducks finally keep momentum on their side for once?
EUGENE — Oregon played hard.
That’s not typically the way to begin a story about a team upsetting No. 9 Arizona in front of a crowd that tried its best to mimic the energy that once filled this place — then again, it’s necessary after the last few weeks, where every step forward for Dana Altman’s program has been followed by a solemn coach shaking his head and apologizing for another massive step back.
The most recent embarrassment came Thursday, after the Ducks followed a road win against Utah with a 17-point home loss to Arizona State — the team’s second loss of 17-or-more points in its previous three games.
“We got beat in every facet of the game,” Altman said, 40 hours before Saturday’s 87-68 triumph. “…Very concerning.”
So what changed? Altman claims not much. He didn’t run them or threaten to leave the lot in the Bay Area next week when the Ducks face two more must win games against Cal and Stanford. He just asked his team a question:
“Who are we?”
And when he couldn’t sleep Thursday night, Altman jumped into his black SUV and headed south down I-5 with no particular destination in mind, nearly reaching Roseburg before turning the rig around.
“Just trying to clear my head,” the 64-year-old said. “What do we have to do to get better? You’re disappointed in yourself when you can’t get your team to play hard. As a coach, that’s your first responsibility. So it just drives me nuts. It bothers me the most when we don’t compete. We’ve played bad before and lost games, but our competitiveness can’t be what it was Thursday — or the previous Thursday night against Colorado.”
Competitiveness wasn’t an issue Saturday. The Ducks smashed the Wildcats on the boards (42-32), second chance points (14-5) and shot 53 percent from the field. In a vacuum, had someone walked into Matthew Knight Arena and saw the way this Oregon team fought for a first-half lead and countered early in the second-half when Arizona made a run, it could have been any one of those Altman teams that have made him widely considered as the best Oregon coach ever.
A healthy Jermaine Couisnard scored 27 points while connecting on 6 of his 9 three-point attempts. Will Richardson poured in 14 points with five assists and didn’t turn the ball over in a second half the Ducks outscored Arizona by 13.
And then there was N’Faly Dante. Oregon’s 6-foot-11 center had 22 points on 11 shots, 10 rebounds, 3 steals, a pair of blocks and managed to tally only a single foul. He also ensured Kerr Kriisa will never forget that time he came to Eugene, when Dante intercepted an inbounds pass at half court, dribbled three times and took off like he was playing slamball.
Krissa ended up in a heap. The Ducks ended up with three more points.
"He pisses me off sometimes. So I was gonna go for it,” Dante said. “It felt great, especially when it's someone you don't like just to make him look embarrassed."
Couisnard wasn’t happy with things, either, countering what he called “chippy” play by Arizona with his own trash talk. He wasn’t going to elaborate like Dante. He just wanted to prove a point.
Who are these Ducks? Better than they’ve shown, Couisnard said.
“We just can’t slack,” said the senior guard who played in just his fourth game of the season Saturday. “We can’t just think we’re going to beat a good team. Everybody was pissed. I wasn’t having it and I feel like everyone was feeling the same way.”
Of course in some respects, Saturday’s win has to baffle Altman. This isn’t a young team. And unlike last year, it’s a team that gels well together. Yes, the Ducks have weathered a mountain of injuries through the season’s first half, but lately have been flying with a relatively clean bill of health. For as satisfying as it must be to add another win over Arizona — Altman’s biggest rival during his 13 years in Eugene — it’s also mystifying for the coach that it came on the heels of another head scratcher. It’s been so up and down that often muffled internet comments about whether the winniest coach in program history has overstayed his welcome have leaked more into day-to-day conversation.
Yet Saturday felt like the old Oregon, down to the court-storming by the student section after another win over a top-10 opponent.
“The more desperate team played harder today,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “They deserved to get the win. We got our ass kicked today by a team that played really well at home.”
But now the Ducks go on the road, to a place where they traditionally struggle, needing a pair of wins to pull out of Pac-12 purgatory. At 4-3 in conference play and 10-8 overall, the Ducks are likely one setback away from having any hopes of an at-large bit to the NCAA Tournament dashed.
The Ducks will be favored. They’ve been favored before.
So again, who are these Ducks?
Saturday, they were a team that played hard with a coach who finally might get some sleep.
— Tyson Alger
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