EUGENE — With just under five minutes to play in the first half, Oregon’s lone center collapsed to the floor, and the previously boisterous Matt Knight crowd fell silent. Francis Okoro quickly arose after writhing in pain on the ground. He grimaced, gripping his left shoulder and quickly headed to the bench before exiting the floor towards the locker room.
All offseason, the Ducks preached focus on defensive fundamentals and rebounding. Okoro figured to play a key role in both, and a worsened injury could have been detrimental for the team’s outlook. Luckily for the Ducks, he would return in the second half.
“Gotta play through that,” Okoro said.
His shoulder had been previously affecting him as he donned a shoulder brace for the evening’s game. But despite the injury, he looked healthy. He racked up eight points and six rebounds in the first half which would prove to be key against Fresno State’s massive front line.
“[His injury] didn’t stop him,” head coach Dana Altman said. “He was the first guy to dive for a loose ball. I did notice that, he got after two of them. We had a bunch of guys standing and reaching, Franco he went down and got them.”
He wasn’t the only Duck hustling though. Five players — including Okoro himself, who ended the night with his first career double-double — recorded five or more rebounds. Point guard Payton Pritchard racked up seven, Chris Duarte had seven as well including three on the offensive end, Shakur Juiston ended with 6, and backup guard Will Richardson dragged down five of his own.
“We need our guards to rebound,” Altman said. “I thought Francis set a great tone, going to the boards early.”
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“Really pleased with our board effort,” Altman said. “That’s a big team, physical team. I thought our guys focused on that really well.”
Aside from a few lapses in communication and missed rotations in the second half — which resulted in a volley of three-pointers, letting Fresno State within single digits late — the Ducks defense was the key to their victory.
With just under eight minutes left in the first half, the Ducks trailed 21-20. A few steals, of which the Ducks had eight, and fast break buckets later and the Ducks entered the half with a 38-27 lead.
“I really think defense [is our strength],” Anthony Mathis said. “You saw the first half when we really locked in on defense and just said ‘aye we’re not going to let them score.’”
The intensity continued in the second half as they rode the momentum to a 20-point lead with ten to go in the game.
Tonight’s performance on the boards and defensive end bode positively going forward. The Ducks will rely on stingy defense and rebounding from every position given their lack of size, at least until center N’Faly Dante rejoins the team in December.
“I think the boards will always be a big factor,” Altman said. “You’ll be able to look at the boards and if we’re a minus on the boards, we’re going to be in trouble.”
This will be put to the test again, in their next game against Boise State and also when the Ducks head to Portland next week to take on No. 14 Memphis. Memphis’ front line features two NBA draft prospects in 6-foot-9 Precious Achiuwa and 7-foot-1 James Wiseman.