I guess there’s a lesson here, which is that even when you think you’re numb to disappointment, sports can find a way to hurt you.
Oregon fans have suffered enough this basketball season, and it’s only Jan. 11. They’ve been through the excitement of signing Bol Bol, one of the top recruits in the nation, only to see him break his foot after nine games.
They watched the Ducks lose at home to Texas Southern. They watched Kenny Wooten go down with a broken jaw. They watched Oregon State win at Matthew Knight Arena for the first time since 2012.
By the time UCLA rolled into town Thursday night, there wasn’t much you could do to make Oregon fans suffer more than they already had. But, doggone it, this game found a way.
It almost feels gratuitous, watching a team in this kind of agony. The Ducks deserved better, but now the story of their season includes an epic collapse and an 87-84 loss to UCLA in overtime.
“I told the guys, I’ve never had one like that,” coach Dana Altman said. “I know they haven’t. It’s tough on all of us.”
It’s hard to overstate just how much had to go wrong for the Ducks to be in this position. But, you know, that’s been their season so far. If something can wrong, it probably will.
The sad part is, the Ducks played some of their best basketball of the season during those first 30 minutes. They led by 17 points with 6:53 remaining, and the lead was 72-59 with 2:26 to play. Their win probability, if you believe in those kinds of things, was 99.5 percent.
UCLA hit a couple three-pointers, and the lead shrunk to single digits. No worries, right?
Then came another, and another — that’s four in a row — and the crowd got tense. Oregon fouled Jaylen Hands on a three-pointer and kicked the ball out of bounds. Now it’s a one-point game and Payton Pritchard is standing at the foul line with 3 seconds left, trying to sink two important free throws after going scoreless for the first 39 minutes of the game.
Pritchard hit both. Will Richardson fouled Hands in the backcourt with 2.6 seconds remaining, denying UCLA a chance for a game-tying three-pointer.
Studies say that fouling with a three-point lead is generally a smart thing to do. The way UCLA had been bombing three-pointers, I understand why Oregon did it.
What kind of shot could Hands have gotten, catching the ball deep in the backcourt with 2.6 seconds to play? Tyus Edney, now a UCLA assistant, needed 4.8 to go coast-to-coast against Missouri in the 1995 NCAA Tournament. With 2.6, you’re probably looking at something between halfcourt and the three-point line — a low-percentage shot, but not quite a prayer.
“I was afraid that he’d get a running start and get into (shooting) motion if we didn’t get him right away,” Altman said. “He’s fast with the ball. He could have gotten close to over half court and gotten a good look.”
The danger of fouling, of course, is that you give up an offensive rebound. Or, God forbid, an offensive rebound and a foul.
Which is exactly what happened when 7-foot-1 center Moses Brown tipped the ball away from 6-9 Paul White and into the hands of Chris Smith, who scored and drew a foul from Pritchard.
“We thought we could get the rebound,” Altman said. “That circumstance is what you fear.”
If the Ducks had Bol or Wooten on the floor, they probably get that rebound. They’re probably not in that situation to begin with, because they would have come up with one more stop or one more basket somewhere along the way to put the game out of reach.
That’s the cruel part of this season. The pain keeps compounding. The Ducks were down, and everybody knew it. Did they really need a loss like this one to emphasize the point?
Smith missed the free throw, but that only delayed the inevitable. Oregon went scoreless over the final 3 minutes of overtime to complete the collapse.
No players addressed reporters after the game. Only Altman, who looked as defeated as I’ve seen him in five years. The Ducks weren’t going anywhere, but even the simple joy of beating UCLA in front of home crowd was too much to ask.
“They’re crushed,” Altman said. “I feel bad for them because they played really hard.”
No team deserves this kind of heartache, especially not after everything the Ducks have been through. You’d like to believe they’ve hit rock bottom, but in times like these, I’m reminded of an immortal line from former Royals manager Buddy Bell.
Never say it can’t get worse.