It was difficult to tell which team needed a win more Thursday night: Washington, which had lost two straight after a surprising 3-1 start to conference play, or Oregon, which had fallen four times in a row after winning its first 13 and rising as high as No. 10 in the national polls.
“We knew this was an important weekend for us,” senior C.J. Wilcox said. “We knew they had dropped four, but we had dropped two. We needed to battle.”
A month ago, the teams couldn’t have been more different, Oregon appearing a member of the nation’s elite and the UW mucking through nonconference play.
But college basketball is a fickle sport. Things can change faster than Andrew Andrews in the open floor. And so it came as only a mild surprise that, on this night, the Huskies were just flat-out better than their southern neighbors.
Not by much — four points better, in fact, in the 80-76 win. It was close. But the UW has Wilcox and Oregon does not.
And that was enough.
Early on, Wilcox wasn’t his usual prolific self on offense, which was clearly Oregon coach Dana Altman’s plan. The Ducks spent most of the game denying Wilcox the ball, and they chased him over the top of nearly every screen. At times, they even busted out a box-and-one look on Wilcox, in which four defenders play zone and the fifth follows Wilcox wherever he goes.
Nonetheless, the senior heated up in the second half and finished with 23 points. Chants of “C-J Wil-cox” rained down in Hec Edmundson Pavilion after he clinched the game with a 3-pointer in a final minute.
“That shot killed them,” Andrews said.
But Wilcox made just as big an impact Thursday on the defensive end. He is more athletic than people think, and he showed it, blocking three shots and notching three steals.
On one of those thefts, midway through the second half, Wilcox picked an Oregon dribbler’s pocket, beginning a fast break that ended with him feeding Shawn Kemp Jr. for an emphatic dunk to put the Huskies up five. The Ducks never led again.
Oregon plays more men, more minutes than most teams in the Pac-12. When the Ducks were winning, that made them a team greater than the sum of their parts. Now that they’re losing, it seems more like a team lacking any single player to take over the game — a player like Wilcox.
It’s strange to say in January, but Oregon is essentially gone from Pac-12 contention (you could say the same thing about any team not named Arizona, I suppose). And the UW, somehow, someway, is in fifth place in the conference standings.
It’s all the sweeter to send Oregon deeper down its tunnel of despair in the process.
The whole point of all this is that success can be fleeting. In a week, these two teams could have reversed their respective tracks again. Oregon State could smash the Huskies this Saturday and Oregon could upend UCLA next Thursday.
But on this night, in this battle of two teams at their respective crossroads, the Huskies were better. They’re above .500. Who knew if that would ever be the case during Pac-12 play this season?
“I’d prefer to be undefeated,” Wilcox said, smiling, “but I’ll definitely take it.”
Reach columnist Kevin Dowd at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KevinDowd
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