The bad mojo surrounding Oregon basketball has progressed beyond the point of adjustments, execution and attitude.
May I suggest an exorcism?
The Ducks have turned heartbreaking losses into an art form, the latest coming Thursday night after Payton Pritchard lost the ball and fouled Washington’s Jaylen Nowell on a 30-foot heave with 1.6 seconds remaining.
A team with the ball in a tie game inside 10 seconds should never lose in regulation. A team leading by nine inside the final minute shouldn’t lose either, but since the Ducks found a way to do that against UCLA, I guess nothing is impossible.
Nowell made all three free throws, and Matisse Thybulle added two more to give Washington a 61-56 victory. At 6-0 in the Pac-12, the Huskies look like a bonafide front runner. At 2-4, the Ducks can barely see daylight.
Between this and Oregon’s loss to the Bruins two weeks ago, you could be forgiven for thinking the Ducks have fallen under some kind of hex. Coach Dana Altman seems to be running out of words to describe the heartbreak, and he’s not the only one.
“It is a gut-wrencher and one we’re just going to have to fight through,” Altman said.
Let’s say a couple things. First, the call against Pritchard shouldn’t have been made. It wasn’t Saints-Rams bad, but you can’t blow the whistle in that situation unless you’re absolutely certain a foul occurred.
After watching the replay, it’s not clear to me that Pritchard did anything worse than stand in Nowell’s way. Maybe he shouldn’t have put the official in position to make that call, but it’s hard to find too much fault when the alternative is an uncontested 3-pointer for the win.
“I watched the play from a lot of different angles,” Altman said. “It was just a tough call.”
Let’s also say this: The Ducks are making mistakes that no team should make. Tie game, shot clock off, a timeout in their pocket — that’s a case where the worst-case scenario should be a missed shot at the buzzer, not a fast break going the other way.
The Ducks consoled Pritchard at midcourt after the game, telling him not to put the loss on his shoulders. And they were right: You can just as easily point to Oregon's dreadful start (two points in the first eight minutes) and 18 other turnovers as the deciding factors.
Still, with the ball in Pritchard’s hands at the end of the game, Washington came away with the steal and won the game. That’s a tough mistake to swallow from Oregon’s third-year starting point guard and most experienced player.
“I told them, ‘Fellas, we’ve got another timeout if you need it,’ Altman said. “‘We just can’t turn it over. If we go to overtime, we got to overtime, but we’re going to take the last shot.’
“And we turned it over.”
The Ducks have asked a lot of Pritchard the past two years. As the lone holdover from Oregon’s Final Four team, he was responsible for conveying the Ducks’ culture to a talented cast of newcomers.
Pritchard had a solid sophomore year — 14.5 points per game, 41 percent from 3-point range — but didn’t become the go-to guy you’d trust to take every big shot or deliver a clutch basket in the final seconds.
This year, his numbers are down to 11.9 points per game, 39 percent from the field and 33 percent from behind the arc. Rather than a leap forward, he’s taken a small step back.
It’s hard to criticize a guy who plays so hard, who shows up for work every day and does his job. But at this point in his career, it’s fair to say Pritchard is more of a role player than a Pac-12 superstar.
And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. Every team could use a guy like Payton Pritchard. But for two years, Oregon has been stuck trying to answer the same question: If Pritchard isn’t making the clutch plays, who is?
If Altman had the answer, I’m sure he would have shared it by now. The coach has done everything in his power, but the Ducks can't seem to break the curse of these heartbreaking defeats.
Maybe it’s time to call in a priest.