Kenny Wooten knew something was wrong with his jaw late in last month’s loss to Baylor, but he could not tell anyone.
“I couldn’t close my jaw or talk,” the Oregon sophomore recalled Wednesday during his first interview since suffering the broken jaw Dec. 21. “I tried telling the coaches something was wrong but I couldn’t get it out so I continued to play.”
It was not until after the game that Wooten was able to explain what happened. He figured the injury occurred when he went up for a rebound and felt an opponents’ elbow hit his face.
“When they told me it was broken, I thought my season was over,” Wooten said. “Then they said I could come back in four or six weeks and I was relieved. I didn’t process in my head how long I would be out.”
Wooten was sidelined for almost four weeks before returning to play in Oregon’s 59-54 win over Arizona on Thursday with a protective mask on his face. He expects to have to wear the mask for the rest of the season.
“I hate wearing it, I’m not going to lie,” he said.
However, Wooten knows he has no choice.
“I told him that it is going to take a while to get used to but there are no options,” UO coach Dana Altman said. “The doctor said that as long as he wears it, he can play. So it is not like if he doesn’t get comfortable with it, he can take it off. He is just going to have to get comfortable with it. We try to have him keep it on the whole time during practice because he is not going to get used to it if he takes it off all the time.”
Wooten said the mask shifted to cover his eyes a couple times when he got hit in the face during the past two games, but that was the only noticeable difference on the court.
“I go out there with the same physicality,” he said. “If I break it again, that would just be unfortunate but I try to give it my all on every play.”
Wooten lost 20 pounds during the first two weeks he was out while having to eat soft foods, mostly applesauce. He added protein shakes and has put most of the weight back on.
“You don’t realize how much you use your jaw for talking, sleeping and eating,” Wooten said. “Constantly having pain is irritating, it was like an ongoing sharp pain in your jaw.”
Wooten played 25 minutes in his return against Arizona when he had five points, seven rebounds and a blocked shot. He picked up two fouls in his first two minutes in Saturday’s 78-64 loss at ASU and sat out the rest of the first half before finishing with six rebounds in 14 scoreless minutes.
“I feel ready,” Wooten said. “I think I could be able to give the minutes I gave before the injury. I feel like I can go out there and give it my all.”
The 6-foot-9 Wooten returns to Matthew Knight Arena at 6 p.m Thursday when the Ducks (11-7, 2-3 Pac-12 Conference) host first-place Washington (14-4, 5-0).
Wooten went 6-for-7 from the field en route to 12 points, seven blocks and five rebounds in last year’s 65-40 win over the Huskies at Matthew Knight Arena. He had eight points, four rebounds and four blocked shots in a 72-64 win later in the season at Washington.
“Wooten’s back, it’s the ghost of Wooten,” UW coach Mike Hopkins joked. “He had 11 blocks in our games last year.”
Altman would like to see the Ducks look inside more often to Wooten, who is averaging 6.0 points per game while shooting 55.6 percent from the field.
Senior forward Paul White has not practiced this week after suffering an ankle injury at Arizona State, but Altman was hopeful he could play against Washington.
“We’ve got to do a better job getting it inside,” the coach said. “We have to throw it to Francis (Okoro) and Kenny more and those guys have got to demand it. We have become a little too perimeter-oriented.”
Washington is the last remaining unbeaten team in the conference with all five wins coming by at least seven points.
“They are a real veteran team and playing with a lot of confidence,” Altman said. “They went on the road and beat Utah bad and controlled the game against Colorado for the most part. In their three home games, they have dominated.”