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February 6, 2014
Triple Threat: Valley of the Sun
Oregon State (5-4, tied-fourth place) returned home and accomplished what a Beaver team hadn't since Eddie Payne's 1998-99 season. Coach Robinson's team is above .500 nine games in after stealing a win from USC on Thursday night and taking a seesaw battle against a tough UCLA Bruins team on Sunday.
The Beavers were able to string together their best weekend of the season when they needed it most. Continued success on the backboards, Roberto Nelson's heroics, and a Hallice Cooke coming out party made for a successful "So Cal Sweep."
No style points were earned by either team on Thursday night. However, Coach Robinson's Beavers came away with a come-from-behind 76-75 overtime win and they'll take it.
The win drew the Beavers even at 4-4 in the PAC12, their best record at the eight game mark in more than a decade. The Beavers and Coach Robinson know that even in a watered-down league, better play will be needed the rest of the way.
Oregon State once again got a heroic performance from PAC 12 Player of the Year hopeful Roberto Nelson as he scored 24 points and made the eventual game winner in OT. The visiting Trojans were able to control the first half with consistent shooting (50% FG), an effective zone & man defense mix, and strong post play from 7-2 senior Omar Oraby. USC's backcourt of Pe'Shon Howard and Byron Wesley attacked the rim at will, knocked down free throws, and kept OSU on their heels to the tune of a 39-36 halftime lead.
As the Trojans tried to push their lead in the second half, it was beleaguered senior forward Devon Collier (13 points & four rebounds) and reserve big-man Daniel Gomis (five points & six rebounds) that provided a lift off of the bench. The USC lead grew to six points with under nine minutes remaining, when their center-piece (Omar Oraby) received a critical technical foul (his fifth) and was lost for the evening.
With the mountainous Oraby on the bench, Angus Brandt & Eric Moreland re-asserted themselves, combining for 19 points, 14 rebounds, and four blocks. Freshman guard Hallice Cooke chipped in 11 points, including the crucial three pointer that would force overtime with under a minute remaining.
An underwhelming overtime concluded with USC point guard Pe'Shon Howard missing the second of two free throws after a controversial blocking call (which actually benefitted OSU, be having a game tying tip negated). On a night when Oregon State missed 15 free throws and had 16 turnovers, it took a valiant (+11) night on the glass and some late game heroics by Roberto Nelson to "steal" the home win.
Oregon State hosted a talented UCLA squad coming off a wake-up call win in Eugene. Unlike last weekend in Seattle, Oregon State would embrace the challenge and come away victorious 71-67.
The first half was hotly contested as UCLA managed to maintain a single-digit cushion throughout. Looking poised for a knockout punch, UCLA fell flat the final three minutes of the half with the score resting at 31-29. In the first half, UCLA struggled to knock down shots, while OSU was being carried by the trio of Angus Brandt, Eric Moreland, and Hallice Cooke. This was an afternoon when defense was the difference for both clubs. On Sunday, stars Roberto Nelson (12 points & 2/8 FG), Jordan Adams (six points & 0/5 3FG), and Zach Lavine (six points & 0/5 3FG) were relative non-factors for their teams.
UCLA again appeared to be ready to break the game open after a Devon Collier technical led to UCLA free throws and a 52-47 lead. The Beavers & Hallice Cooke (20 points & 4/6 3FGs) responded promptly with an 18-2 run which was their most impressive all season.
Behind Cooke, Devon Collier (10 points), and Eric Moreland (11 points & 14 rebounds), OSU was able to push their lead to double digits late in the second half. UCLA had one last flurry (assisted by OSU turnovers and missed free throws) which cut the lead to one under 15 seconds, before Jordan Adams would be called for a charge, allowing the Beavers to ice the game at the line. Oregon State has to feel great about themselves as they held a good offensive team under 40% shooting, notched back-to-back wins, and moved into a tie for fourth place.
The stakes become even higher this week as the Beavers visit their own house of horrors, in the Valley of the Sun.
LOOKING AHEAD: HEADED TO THE VALLEY OF THE SUN
Arizona State Coach Herb Sendek (7th season) knows that missing the NCAA tourney for a fourth straight season could amount to a very hot seat in the desert. The non-conference season went according to Sendek's plan as the hot-shooting Sun Devils (16-6, 5-4 tied fourth, 46 RPI) were able to get off to a hot start with their only losses being quality opponents.
Sendek relies on diminutive, do-it-all point guard Jahii Carson to score, distribute, and lead his team. The 5-10 Carson reminds conference foes of former Husky Nate Robinson with his ability to attack the paint (18.4 ppg and 4.7 apg) and make clutch plays (90% FT shooter). Carson has gotten help from his friends this year, as Penn State-transfer Jermaine Marshall has scored 15 points per game and shot a blistering 45.5% from three (on 51 makes).
As with all Herb Sendek's teams, defense is a staple. However, this time it's less match-up zone, more man-to-man. A key cog to ASU's defense has been 7-2 senior Jordan Bachynski's ability to anchor the paint (8.8 rebounds and 4.2 blocks per game). His improved play on the defensive end has been a luxury for the Devils and key to their holding opponents under 67 points per game.
One x-factor for ASU will be the play of junior forward Jonathan Gilling and his ability to make a difference both shooting the three point shot and on the glass. When Gilling plays well, he's making big threes and key effort plays on the glass. Oregon State will have their hands full Thursday against the league's best defensive rebounding and shot blocking team.
In what has been an up & down five years at U of A (21-1, 8-1 first, 2 RPI), Sean Miller has led his team to an elite eight & a sweet sixteen, but has missed the tourney as well. This season has been his coming out party in Tucson, as the Cats have shocked many by holding down the nation's top spot for nearly two months.
The Cal Bears put a stop to Arizona's unbeaten streak last Saturday night, but Arizona is clearly the class of the PAC 12. The Wildcats were able to notch impressive wins over Duke and at Michigan, serving notice to the entire country. This year's performance came as a surprise to many, as Arizona has lost key players the past two seasons. However, prized recruit and lottery pick-to-be Aaron Gordon couldn't have come at a better time.
The 6-9 Gordon has drawn comparisons to Blake Griffin since his school-boy days in San Jose. The ultra-athletic Gordon has been underwhelming on the offensive end (12 points per game), but his length & athleticism (9.2 rpg and one bpg) have been a cornerstone of Miller's defense.
Make no mistake, these Cats aren't winning Lute Olson-style by out-scoring people. Sean Miller's team is reflective of his tough, scrappy Pittsburgh roots and his team plays defense (league best 56.7 ppg) better than anyone this side of Jim Boheim's zone. The Wildcats rely on 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley (injured Saturday), and Gordon to close possessions on the defensive glass (league's best).
Arizona's third year combo guard Nick Johnson (16.7 ppg) finally has the perfect complimentary backcourt mate in T.J. McConnell. The addition of the Duquesne-transfer (Pittsburgh connection for Miller) has allowed Johnson to play off of the ball more and thus score more. The 6-1 McConnell has been the key to their season in my opinion. The tough, smart, and unselfish floor general can defend, distribute, and makes hustle plays (think Aaron Craft from Ohio State). Both the Oregon schools will have their hands full this weekend, as the Cats will be out for blood.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Oregon State has put themselves in a great place entering the back-half of the PAC 12 schedule. On paper, their task will not be getting any easier with some daunting road tests in the next two weeks. OSU players, coaches, and fans alike should take it one game at a time from here on out.
The goal needs to be a top six finish and there are enough winnable games to make that a reality. Coach Robinson's rotation, defensive schemes, and game management have all improved since December and it's showing-up in the win column.
How much improvement has taken place in Corvallis? In each of the next three games (all on the road) OSU will be an underdog according to the experts (i.e. Vegas). This needs to be viewed as an opportunity in which they've got nothing to lose.
Beaver Nation will hang another foot off of the bandwagon with each successive loss and that's fair. However, each win does put hope into a fan base that is begging for it. The challenge starts Thursday in Tempe and the Beavers will have their hands full in a place they've always struggled. The Sun Devils can defend, shoot the three, and feature a "jet point guard" in Jahii Carson that can give OSU fits.
I see Arizona State finding a way to hold-off OSU 77-70. Check into The Lodge on Sunday morning for a Arizona/Oregon State game prediction.
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