Anyone watching Thursday night's Pac-12 showdown between Arizona and Oregon likely had the same thought as the Ducks built a 13-point lead with less than five minutes left: The Wildcats were right where they wanted to be.
Sure enough, the Cardiac Cats delivered a comeback worthy of their reputation as escape artists, trimming Oregon's lead to three in the final minute and turning the atmosphere at Matthew Knight Arena from delirious to restless. This time Arizona's comeback bid fell one big shot short, however, as the Ducks handed the fourth-ranked Wildcats their first loss and emerged with an impressive 70-66 victory.
The key sequence in the game came in the final 20 seconds after Nick Johnson rebounded a Dominic Artis missed 3-pointer and pushed the ball up court with the chance to slice further into Oregon's three-point lead. Instead Johnson dribbled into traffic and had it poked away, enabling Oregon guard Johnathan Loyd to sink one of two free throws with 10 seconds left to finish off the Wildcats (14-1).
That Arizona refused to quit should come as no surprise considering the Houdini acts the Wildcats have already pulled this season to take an unbeaten record into the second week of conference play.
They rallied from a six-point deficit in the final 56 seconds to rob Florida of a big road win last month. They escaped San Diego State in the Diamondhead Classic title game thanks to Johnson's game-saving blocked shot at the buzzer. And they won in overtime at Colorado last week because of a 10-2 spurt to end regulation and the officials' questionable decision to nullify a game-winning 3-pointer by the Buffs.
Credit Oregon (13-2) for doing just enough to avoid suffering the same fate — and for playing well enough to build a double-digit lead in the first place. All five starters scored at least nine points and the Ducks made 7 of 11 3-pointers, propelling them to their first win over a top-five opponent since they upset UCLA five years ago.
An NIT team a year ago, Oregon has improved this season despite the loss of leading scorer Devoe Joseph to graduation. Freshman guards Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson give the Ducks newfound speed and outside shooting in the backcourt, while Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi bolsters a frontcourt anchored by returners E.J. Singler, Carlos Emery and Tony Woods.
There's no shame for Arizona in a narrow loss at Oregon, which has already beaten UNLV in Las Vegas and clobbered Vanderbilt in Eugene.
Arizona remains the Pac-12 favorite despite the loss, but the first two weeks of conference play have shown a league title won't come easy. And considering Oregon has now won its lone meeting with the Wildcats and only faces UCLA once as well, the Ducks may turn out to be Arizona's top challenger.