Ziaire Williams nearly had his moment on Thursday night.
After giving his team a jolt off the bench in the second half, the five-star recruit’s 3-point attempt from the corner in the dying moments would have given the Stanford Cardinal a much-needed win over the Oregon Ducks to boost their NCAA Tournament resume, but it hit off the back iron and bounced away, symbolic of a night where the Cardinal came oh so close but couldn’t quite do enough in what was essentially a must-win game, one they ultimately lost 71-68.
It was announced 30 minutes before gametime that Stanford (14-10, 10-8 Pac-12) would be without Oscar da Silva, the conference’s No. 2 scorer, who suffered a foot injury during Wednesday’s practice and was ruled out earlier on Thursday.
Even without the senior forward, the Cardinals managed to hang around, leading by as much as six in the second half before Chris Duarte took over. Oregon (15-5, 10-4) got a game-high 24 from the star point guard, including a go-ahead 3-pointer for a 65-64 lead with 3:55 left.
“He’s proven that he’s an elite player and made plays as such,” Stanford head coach Jerod Haase said of Duarte.
The Dominican senior missed two other 3-point attempts that could have put the game away in the final minutes, but the latter of those was rebounded by Oregon forward Eric Williams Jr., who was able to call timeout with 11.8 seconds left. Duarte was fouled with nine seconds to go and made the first free throw for a two-point lead, and after missing the second, wisely fouled Daejon Davis with 6.5 remaining as the Ducks had three fouls to give. They’d get one more with 4.9 left but would never manage to inflict a third as Davis saw his primary option, Spencer Jones, covered and gave the ball to an open Williams in the corner, whose shot missed. Eugene Omoruyi, who had an excellent all-around first half for Oregon and benefited the most from da Silva’s absence, made one more free throw with 0.4 left and Stanford was unable to get off a final shot.
With da Silva out and forward Lukas Kisunas on the bench after two early fouls, Omoruyi had eight of his 10 rebounds and three of his four assists in the first half, and he’d finish the night with 12 points to complete a double-double. The last of those first-half assists came to set up an LJ Figueroa dunk to cap off a 9-2 run and give the Ducks their largest lead of the night at 31-23 before Stanford closed the half with five of the final seven points, scoring off a Bryce Wills turnaround shot and Spencer Jones three before Figueroa, who finished with 13, scored off the glass to send the visitors into the break up five.
That last basket by Figueroa did little to stop Stanford’s momentum in the second half, as the Cardinal came roaring out of the locker room with an 8-0 run fueled by three Oregon turnovers. When the Ducks responded to take a 46-43 lead off a Williams Jr. three and three Chandler Lawson turnovers, it was Williams’ turn to answer the bell, knocking down a three off the wing, then scoring off a turnover and adding another bucket in transition off a feed from Jones for a personal 7-0 run, giving the hosts a 50-46 lead and forcing Oregon head coach Dana Altman to burn a timeout.
“I thought the staff did a nice job making adjustments at halftime,” Haase said. “With Oscar out, different guys were put into different roles and I thought the guys adjusted pretty well.”
A 3-pointer from Jones, who went 3-of-4 from beyond the arc and finished with 11 points to go with three early blocks, would make it a 56-50 game with 9:06 left before Duarte scored five straight to draw his team within one. Jaiden Delaire, who led Stanford with 15, would respond to a Will Richardson three with one of his own to put the home side up 61-58, and Lukas Kisunas would score three of his seven points off a layup and free throw before Duarte put Oregon on top for good.
Kisunas was limited by fouls to just 19 minutes, and while he made all three of his attempts from the field, Stanford was noticeably weaker on the glass when he was off the floor.
“When he’s in foul trouble, there’s a void to a certain extent,” Haase commented.
Even with the lack of size caused by da Silva’s absence and Kisunas’ limited minutes, Stanford did manage a 34-32 rebounding advantage on the night, but Oregon’s 11 offensive rebounds, including four by Omoruyi, loomed large.
None of those offensive rebounds were more significant than the one by Williams Jr. in the final minute, but Oregon did manage 12 second chance points to Stanford’s seven, including a Williams Jr. 3-pointer to cut it to 42-41and the pivotal free throw by Duarte with nine seconds to go.
The loss will knock Stanford, which was already on the outside of the bubble entering the day according to most major media outlets, even further down the totem pole with just two games remaining in the regular season, a home game Saturday afternoon against Oregon State and a Wednesday visit to USC.
“I don’t hit them over the head with it every day, but everyone in that locker room knows what we’re trying to achieve,” Haase said of his team’s perspective.” They understand why we’ve practiced in dark gyms and stayed in hotel rooms.”
Williams Jr. finished with 10 for Oregon and Lawson added nine as the Ducks, who will visit Cal on Saturday, swept the season series. Davis finished with 13 for Stanford while Williams, a projected lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft who has battled knee injuries, a death in the family and COVID-19 protocols throughout the season, scored 12 on 5-of-13 shooting.