Oregon tops UCLA to solidify Pac-12 front-runner status

LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- No. 21 Oregon dominated in the paint and used an 8-0 run in the final few minutes to pull away with a 76-67 win at No. 24 UCLA on Saturday afternoon to firmly plant the Ducks atop the Pac-12 standings in the teams’ only meeting this season.

“The guys did a great job on the boards, I thought that was the difference in the game,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said of the team's +9 rebounding advantage and 38 points in the paint. “They played really well other than the turnovers. I thought we did a lot of good things, showed a lot of toughness, a lot of determination.”

The meeting was a rare Pac-12 battle between two top 25 teams, the first such game in the conference since the 2010 Pac-10 Tournament. The loss snapped the Bruins’ (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) 10 game win streak, which included a 5-0 conference start for the first time since 2004 prior to Saturday’s game.

Instead it’s the Ducks (16-2, 5-0) who set a bit of history in the win, opening with five straight league victories for the first time since 1974.

“We missed some good looks that didn’t go down for us,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland. “But give them credit, Oregon came here and beat us on our home floor and that puts them in the driver’s seat (in the Pac-12) right now.”

The Ducks trailed by three at halftime after freshman Shabazz Muhammad, who did not start after missing a team meeting earlier in the week, scored the final eight points for the Bruins. While the game started off at an up-and-down pace that looked as though things would be a first-to-90 points affair, both teams slowed things down in the 2nd half of a game where neither team led by more than six until the final few minutes.

Howland’s move to push the pace on offense was a key reason why the team went on their run in December and January despite a lack of tough defense that had been a trademark of the veteran coach's teams in Westwood. The style seemed to become an achilles’ heel on Saturday however when the Bruins started to miss open jumpers, shooting only 38 percent in the 2nd half while letting the Ducks go 60 percent from the field in the same frame.

“I thought we did a really good job defensively in the 1st half, they did a great job slowing the tempo in the 2nd half,” Howland said. “We took quick shots in our press offense and a real turning point was back-to-back turnovers by us.”

Freshman Kyle Anderson picked up his sixth double-double on the season but killed momentum with UCLA trailing by three with an errant pass that was picked off by Damyean Dotson, who threw it ahead for a dunk by Tony Woods in the middle of an 8-0 Oregon run that essentially iced the game for the Ducks.

Neither team took care of the ball as effectively as their coaches wanted, with freshmen playing key roles for both sides. The difference in the game wound up being Oregon’s dominance down low with seniors Woods and Arsalan Kazemi combining for 30 points and 14 rebounds.

“They felt they had the advantage on the perimeter, they have so many guys that can score,” said Altman. “I thought we had the advantage inside and did that with Tony and Arsalan -- both in double figures -- and out-rebounding them by 10 was big.”

The Ducks also managed to capture the win despite veteran forward E.J. Singler battling foul trouble for most of the game, picking up his fourth with 9:31 left on a controversial charge call. Freshmen Dotson and Dominic Artis both scored in double-digits in their biggest road test yet and didn’t seem to be rattled despite a loud 12,254 at the New Pauley Pavilion.

In sweeping both Southern California schools with some clutch play down the stretch, Oregon’s bench -- led mostly by all-purpose big man Kazemi -- has provided a nice complement to the impressive starting five. As one of only two undefeated teams left in the Pac-12 (Washington being the other), the Ducks are much more than in the driver’s seat for the conference regular season crown.

Although there’s nearly two months left in the regular season, thanks to wins over Arizona and UCLA, Oregon is now the clear favorite in the Pac-12 after being picked seventh in the preseason media poll.

“They’re a really good team that has all the pieces of a championship-level team,” said Bruins forward Travis Wear, who finished with 17 points. “I’d say everybody’s chasing them right now.”

They have quite a bit of ground to makeup as well, given that the Ducks do not play either the Wildcats or Bruins again.

“Washington’s playing well, Arizona and UCLA are awfuly talented teams,” Altman cautioned. “It’s a long year and so many things can happen.”

Still, leading the league in a number of categories in addition to being atop the standings was not where most thought the Ducks would be at this point in late January. Questions regarding the young backcourt on the road were answered against the Bruins, a healthy Singler has become a steadying hand and Kazemi’s game off the bench has put Oregon well ahead of schedule.

“I didn’t know how the freshmen would come along. I didn’t know how everybody would blend together,” said Altman of where the team is now. “But after we got going a little bit, it was a really coachable bunch for the most part that try to listen. It’s an easy group to work with and they’ve made tremendous progress.

“If you saw us play early and then now, we’re two totally different teams.”

After Saturday’s win against UCLA, it does seem clear Oregon’s gone from the fringe in the Pac-12 to right out in front.

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