As Arizona forward Brandon Ashley hobbled onto the floor on crutches before Thursday night's matchup with Oregon, fans at McKale Center wanted the injured sophomore to know how much he'll be missed.
They chanted his name loud enough that Ashley acknowledged the crowd by smiling broadly and raising his crutches in the air.
It was probably difficult for Ashley to remain so upbeat throughout stretches of his team's first game since he broke his right foot two minutes into Arizona's loss at Cal on Saturday. The Wildcats rallied from second-half deficits of seven and six points to escape with a 67-65 victory, but it was a performance that exposed some of the issues coach Sean Miller will have to address to lessen the impact of Ashley's injury and keep his team in national title contention.
An Arizona team that boasted one of the most imposing front lines in college basketball with Ashley healthy suddenly looked much smaller in his absence. Miller did not use any of his backup big men to replace Ashley against small but jet-quick Oregon, sliding Aaron Gordon to power forward, inserting Rondae Hollis Jefferson in the starting lineup at small forward and using only guards Gabe York and Elliott Pitts off the bench.
Arizona defended adequately with that group aside from a few first-half stretches, but the Wildcats were not nearly as effective on the glass as they have been much of the season. An Oregon team not known for its rebounding grabbed 15 offensive boards, prompting an irate Miller to call his team "soft" during his halftime interview on ESPN and describe the rebounding as "men against boys."
It also hurt Arizona not having Ashley's 11.5 points per game and ability to score either via pick-and-pop jump shots or with his back to the basket.
The Wildcats looked out of rhythm on offense most of the night, shooting only 40 percent from the field, 25 percent from behind the arc and an anemic 19 of 35 from the foul line. Nick Johnson led Arizona with 18 points, but he needed 16 shots to get that. Freshman Aaron Gordon's season-long foul shooting woes somehow worsened Thursday as he shot only 2 of 11 from the free throw line.
Arizona's lack of proven depth without Ashley also was obvious. Not only did Miller shorten his rotation to six players in the second half, Gordon had to return immediately with a sprained ankle since there weren't any viable options to bring in to replace him. That short a bench is OK in spurts, but fatigue becomes a concern if the Wildcats stick with that in the long term.
So how did Arizona outscore Oregon 17-9 over the final eight minutes, thwart the Ducks' upset bid and improve to 22-1 despite all those issues? It took a combination of Hollis-Jefferson coming up big in his first game as a full-time starter and the Wildcats showing far more poise down the stretch than the sometimes exasperating Ducks did.
Hollis-Jefferson took advantage of his expanded role and delivered maybe his finest performance, scoring 14 points on 6 of 10 shooting and grabbing 10 rebounds. The 6-foot-7 freshman's outside shooting remains a liability, but he attacks the rim off the dribble, he defends tenaciously and he is capable of helping on the glass to replace what Ashley provided.
Oregon also helped with some ill-advised decisions down the stretch. From the moment the Ducks took a 56-50 lead with just over eight minutes to go, they committed five turnovers, clanked 3 of 4 free throws and missed six of their next eight shots. None were more ill-advised than a terrible 3-point attempt from Joseph Young with 1:20 left after T.J. McConnell gave Arizona the lead with a three of his own.
All in all, it was the outcome Arizona wanted even if it also left the Wildcats with plenty to clean up over the next month.
"You have to understand, you do something for five months a certain way and it changes, you don't have it perfect right away," Miller told ESPN in his post-game TV interview. "Tonight was about will and it was about determination. I credit Oregon. I thought they came here and played hard. They're really efficient on offense. For a while it didn't look good but we found a way."
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