EUGENE — On Thursday, Elgin Cook denied it.

The Ducks don’t care about what everyone else thinks, the senior forward said after Oregon’s win over No. 21 USC. They play their game and flush whatever noise may come from the outside.

But moments after the Ducks dominated UCLA in every facet of an 86-72 win on Saturday, Dillon Brooks opened up the curtain, if only for a moment.

Are the Ducks overlooked? He was asked.   

And instead of playing it safe, or finding a way around the question, the sophomore who is building a case to enter the Pac-12 Player of the Year conversations, simply said, “Yeah, for sure.”

He didn’t gripe about why voters don’t notice the Pac-12’s second-best record, or why some still consider teams Oregon has beaten to be better, Brooks just acknowledged that they use the lack of hype as fuel.   

“Our time will come,” said Brooks, whose 25 points were one shy of his career high. “We just got to stay patient and keep being motivated every time we see the polls come out.”

Against the Bruins, a game played in front of a season-high 10,525 fans and more on national network TV, the Ducks made their case for why it’s time for them to be included in the big picture.

UCLA shoots the ball well. The Ducks shot better. UCLA is strong on the boards. The Ducks outrebounded them by 42-32. UCLA’s backcourt of Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton have been key cogs in upset wins over then-No. 1 Kentucky and then-No. 7 Arizona. Led by Casey Benson’s staunch defense, Alford missed 10 of his 13 shots and Hamilton converted just four field goals.

And while the Ducks once again struggled with foul trouble and once again missed more free throws than they should have, coach Dana Altman was in an almost cheery mood after the game.

“I like to score. If the ball is going in the hole, it’s a lot more fun,” he said. “But still, you’ve got to guard and rebound … I think I’m most pleased that we outrebounded them by 10.”

Key in that was how Chris Boucher, who extends to 6-foot-11 but looks paper thin, maneuvered through UCLA’s Tony Parker (6-9, 260) and Thomas Welsh (7-0, 245) for 18 points and 10 rebounds. The junior college transfer’s four blocks not only turned the tide in several key moments, but gave him 65 for the season – good for ninth on Oregon’s all-time career list.

“Chris is continuing to get better,” Altman said. “He really changed the game today with his blocks and just guys looking for him. Eighteen points, 10 rebounds, the two guys from north of the border were pretty good today.”

Altman was referencing Boucher and Brooks, both Canadians, but it wasn’t just the Canucks driving Oregon. Cook followed up his strong game against USC with 17 points, five rebounds and six assists. Jordan Bell grabbed five rebounds, scored eight points and blocked two shots. And Benson scored eight points and keyed in to limit Alford, which Altman said was pivotal to the win.

“Casey played really hard,” he said. “He got through screens, he kept a hand on the ball. Bryce is such a good offensive player, when he gets a roll going, he’s really dangerous. I just thought Casey did a wonderful job.”

Maybe most important for Oregon was a second half in which UCLA got its game going at times, only for the Ducks to respond. After Oregon led by 10 at the half, the Bruins would cut Oregon’s lead to five points or less four times, and each time the Ducks countered strongly. The final time, when a three-pointer from Hamilton brought the score to 63-58 with 8:42 to play, the Ducks responded with a 7-2 run that featured two Cook jumpers and a Brooks three. And while neither team was especially sloppy with the ball, the Ducks forced four UCLA turnovers in the second half and gave up just one of their own.

“That’s just one of our focuses, making simple plays and getting the ball to spots where we practice shooting all the time,” Brooks said, “such as drive-and-kick and getting the ball to the post, just making simple plays overall.”

Simple plays have been stressed by Altman all season and it won’t ever be more important than next week. Next up Oregon has the Arizona trip, with the Wildcats up first Thursday in Tucson. Arizona beat Oregon in all three meetings last season, and the last time the Ducks stepped foot into the McKale Center they left after a 90-56 embarrassment.

But then the Ducks were overlooked because they were young and, at that point of the season, not very good. Now, heading down to Arizona, it will likely be a top 25-matchup with the Ducks knowing what to expect from the hardest venue to play at in the Pac-12.

“Oh yeah,” Brooks said when asked if he was excited for the trip. “Ever since we got beat here, there and in the Pac-12, I can’t wait. It’s going to be a good game.” 

— Tyson Alger

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