When the No. 19 Oregon Ducks defeated the No. 8 Arizona Wildcats on an Endyia Rogers jumper with 0.4 seconds remaining in overtime on Jan. 15, it was their first game of the season with their whole team.
Since Sabrina Ionescu’s career ended with a canceled NCAA Tournament, the Ducks have been searching for a chance to prove how good they still are. They brought in the No. 1 recruiting class for 2020-21 and started the season ranked at No. 10. However, things didn’t play out how they would have liked, and they were ranked No. 23 entering an NCAA Tournament they played in without star Te-Hina Paopao (lower leg injury). In the Sweet 16, they saw injuries to Maddie Scherr and Nyara Sabally prevent them from at least keeping it close if not winning against Louisville.
Fast forward to this season and Oregon again began the season ranked at No. 10. But adversity plagued them from the jump. Both Paopao and Rogers, their current No. 2 and No. 3 scorers, respectively, were injured right before the season started.
The Ducks lost three in a row from Nov. 21 to Dec. 1, with the last of those losses coming to a UC Davis team that is now 9-9 and 3-5 in a mid-major conference (the Big West). The losing streak dropped them to 3-3 and they were out of the rankings on Dec. 6.
But Oregon is back in business now and may just prove to us that it is still a Top 10 team and that the drop-off since Ionescu’s departure has been exaggerated by unfortunate circumstances. The Ducks’ upset of Arizona was the second win in what is now a eight-game winning streak, including a forfeit against UCLA. The third win was over No. 10 UConn by 13.
It was a little concerning that Oregon only beat Washington (5-9, 0-6 Pac-12) by seven on Jan. 21, but the Ducks beat USC by 32 last Sunday.
Now comes the rematch with Arizona. The Ducks and Wildcats square off Friday night at 10 p.m. ET in Tucson, Ariz. on the Pac-12 Network.
Arizona is coming off another meaningful rematch — that of last year’s national championship game. The Wildcats lost both the 2021 title match and last Sunday’s contest to Stanford, which is currently ranked second in the nation. The two losses were by a combined seven points.
Defense is the Wildcats’ strength more than offense and that was the case last year as well. But their 3-point percentage is up from 33.7 percent last year to 36.8 percent this year, and that could be a key piece of their mission to return to the Final Four. Fifth-year player Sam Thomas is shooting 49.3 percent from distance with 1.9 makes per game. That’s 10.7 percent better and 0.5 more makes than her previous career bests.
Arizona is led in scoring and rebounding by Cate Reese (14.9 points and 6.3 boards per game). Reese was the team’s second scoring option last year, with Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald of course being the one carrying the biggest load.
The Wildcats have the 24th best scoring defense in the country. They can usually rely on that. We’ll see if Thomas and Reese can light up the scoreboard enough to keep up with Oregon.
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No. 19 Oregon Ducks (14-5, 7-1 Pac-12) vs. No. 8 Arizona Wildcats (15-3, 5-3 Pac-12)
When: Friday, Feb 4 at 10 p.m. ET
Where: McKale Center in Tucson, AZ
Key to the matchup: Oregon’s aggressiveness on offense. These teams are close to even in a number of categories: field-goal percentage defense, 3-point percentage, 3-point percentage defense, 3-pointers made, free-throw percentage, rebound margin and turnover margin. But Oregon has an advantage when it comes to field-goal percentage and getting to the line. The Ducks need to take their open looks and trust that a good percentage of them will go down. They also need to drive into the paint and draw fouls. The Wildcats can counter with a good field-goal percentage defense, but they have to be careful not to foul.