In a fitting, full-circle moment, Maite Cazorla and Oti Gildon will be in the spotlight together when Oregon honors the seniors during the final regular-season home game Sunday.
When the Ducks’ NCAA Tournament dreams were dashed by three late losses after a season-ending knee injury to Jillian Alleyne, the Pac-12 co-player of the year in 2015-16, Cazorla and Gildon helped coach Kelly Graves turn the tide for the program during an improbable run to the WNIT semifinals as true freshmen.
Now the selfless point guard from Spain and the venerable forward from Spokane will try to make sure No. 2 Oregon finishes its journey to a Pac-12 title repeat with star forward Ruthy Hebard hobbled by her own late-season knee injury.
The Ducks (24-3, 13-2) will need inspired efforts from the two seniors and their six healthy teammates to snap a two-game losing skid against USC.
Win or lose, it’s going to be an emotional afternoon at Matthew Knight Arena (11 a.m., Pac-12 Networks).
“It will be a little bittersweet,” Gildon said. “I’m a little sad that it’s my last home game, but I’m excited to play in front of my family and friends for the last time at home, at least until we host the NCAAs hopefully.
“I’m going to try not to cry, I’m not much of a crier. We’ll see what happens, I might shed a tear or two.”
Gildon, who grew up cheering for Graves’ great Gonzaga teams and attending his youth basketball camps, has played in front of familiar faces throughout her career, highlighted by Oregon’s run to the Elite Eight at the Spokane Regional last spring.
Cazorla already shed a tear or two after being surprised by her family during an emotional reunion before Friday’s game and then being consoled by them after Oregon’s bitter 74-69 loss to UCLA.
“It was hard, I’m not going to lie,” Cazorla said of adjusting to college life and major college basketball so far away from her family and friends. “Especially for me, it was the language barrier, it was hard just being away from home. The game is more physical here than back home, so you have to prepare your body like weight lifting.
“It was hard, but it was worth it.”
The Ducks were making this season look easy two weeks ago as they humiliated Stanford 88-48 for the program’s first win at Maples Pavilion since 1987.
But after splitting the Civil War series and then blowing a 22-point lead to UCLA, Oregon is suddenly clinging to a one-game lead in the Pac-12 standings over No. 7 Stanford and No. 12 Oregon State with three games remaining in the regular season.
The Cardinal (22-4, 12-3) hosts No. 17 Arizona State while the Beavers (22-5, 12-3) deal with the blistering Bruins (17-10, 10-5) on Sunday.
The Trojans (15-11, 5-10) led Oregon State late in the fourth quarter before falling 68-61. Aliyah Mazyck led the visitors with 25 points and five made 3-pointers.
“We have to be tough enough to come together and move on and step up for the next game,” Erin Boley said after scoring 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting against UCLA.
The rest of the Ducks were a combined 20-for-52 (38.7 percent) from the field, including 3-for-21 (14.3 percent) on 3-pointers.
“We needed (Boley) to do more of that and she did,” Graves said of the lone offensive bright spot for Oregon during its first home loss of the season. “I thought she played a really great basketball game tonight at both ends of the floor.”
Cazorla scored 13 points but only had one assist with three turnovers. Gildon had six points and eight rebounds but was unable to box out Kennedy Burke after a missed free throw in the waning seconds, which allowed the UCLA standout to close out the game.
The two senior classmates, who have shared more victories than any players in program history, will be back in the spotlight Sunday looking to get the Ducks’ championship dreams back in focus.
“(Gildon) could have maybe chased some more minutes somewhere else, but she didn’t. She stuck it out and she has left a legacy that will be remembered forever here,” Graves said. “Maite has been phenomenal. Day one came in, and we gave her the keys to the Cadillac so to speak, and she’s been a great driver ever since. Started every game. Very few college players ever do that. She is an unsung hero in this group. …
“Those are two special players that have made this thing happen.”