EUGENE - The scene Wednesday night at Matthew Knight Arena would have been much different than the pandemonium that took place had Oregon forward Dillon Brooks' three-point shot with 0.8 seconds remaining not been true rather than swished to give the No. 21 Ducks an 89-87 win over No. 2 UCLA.
Faces would have been long. Hearts would have been broken. Yet, what would have still been as real in defeat as it was in victory is that the Ducks played arguably their best basketball of the season against the best competition they have faced to date, raising the belief that this team could certainly be championship-caliber after all.
That, in the end, was more important than the win that could have easily been a loss with an inch or two to the left or right on Brooks' shot.
These were the Ducks we've been waiting to see. A versatile and exciting group that has Final Four potential. Not the floundering team that got blown out at No. 4 Baylor and looked lethargic during many of its wins against lesser competition.
"We're still a work in progress," UO coach Dana Altman said. "We needed something to happen. This was a good win."
The team's play, and the victory that extended the Ducks' home winning streak to 34 games, should pay dividends on many fronts, starting, but not ending with the play of Brooks, the team's heart and soul who must be that dude on a nightly basis for this team to excel.
But let's start with the Ducks looking like an elite level team capable of contending for a Final Four berth, an expectation that had Oregon ranked in the top five to start the season.
Altman all season had been calling for his team to improve its ball movement and play with greater efficiency. The Ducks (12-2, 1-0 Pac-12) did that with 19 assists on 30 field goals. Oregon certainly didn't always shoot well (the Ducks made 7 of 14 three-point attempts in the first half and just 4 of 16 in the second half) but the team rarely took poor shots while committing just nine turnovers compared to the team's average of 13.6 per contest.
Always the coach, Altman still found the negatives, but did admit that the team certainly looked stronger.
"Offensively we're still way behind those guys," he said of UCLA, which leads the Pac-12 in scoring, shooting and assists. "We have a tremendous amount of work to do with our execution on the offensive end."
The other byproduct of this game is how the team didn't fold when everything went south in the second half. Oregon played lights out in the first half but led just 52-47. UCLA (13-1, 0-1) somewhat played possum waiting for the moment to strike. They did just that going on a big run in the second half to take an 80-72 lead with 3:53 remaining.
Altman said the way his team fought back from that moment on made him the most proud.
"It would have been really easy for us to give in to it," Altman said of UCLA's momentum at that point.
The Ducks did not. Instead, they kept finding the resolve to claw back and eventually broke through.
"We're going to fight from the first 20 minutes to the last 20 minutes," Brooks said.
That brings us back to Brooks. Altman said he was happy for his entire team but mostly for Brooks, who he said has had a rough five months dating back to when he injured his foot during a team trip to play in Spain. He missed the team's first three games, returned for a loss at Georgetown, and had been on a minutes restriction all season, even when he made his first start against UNLV on Dec. 17.
Trainers, Altman said, recently gave Brooks the go ahead to come off his minutes restriction and tonight he delivered his best game of the season with 23 points and nine rebounds in 35 minutes.
Brooks attacked the basket without fear, converting on several plays inside. He crashed the boards. He launched eight threes...
Well, that last part didn't turn out too well. He made just two.
"My team kept me positive, coaches kept me positive," Brooks said.
That led to him making the three-point shot that mattered most.
"For him to hit that shot after struggling here, it was good for him," Altman said.
Brooks said he had no qualms about taking the three, which came after UCLAs Bryce Alford (20 points) missed a free throw. Brooks got the rebound, gave the ball to freshman point guard Payton Pritchard, and then got it back at the other end. Brooks ran straight to the three-point line and launched.
"I was shooting it bad but I always say, 'shoot it like it's your last shot,'" Brooks said.
Altman, ever the coach, joked that Brooks had time to take the ball to the basket, but added "who could argue" with his best player's decision in the end.
"Nice to see him healthy and enjoying the game," Altman said.
There's no rest for the elated. No. 22 USC comes to Matthew Knight Arena on Friday. No. 18 Arizona comes to town on Feb. 4. UCLA looms again on Feb. 9.
"They are the team to beat," Altman said of the Bruins. "We won a home game by two points. You're supposed to win at home. With their explosiveness, I still think they are the team to beat."
Wednesday night's game will be remembered for years as the one where Brooks hit that deep shot to win it. But maybe more importantly, for this team's goals this season, this night should be remembered as the night the Ducks finally started playing like a national title contender.
"We're feeling good," Brooks said. "Now we know we can do it. We can do it every time. Coach knows we can do it. Now we have to do it every single game."