When Sabrina Ionescu stepped onto campus, everyone knew from Day 1 that her presence was a game-changer and something special was about to happen in the next four years.
Payton Pritchard arrived almost at the same time as his counterpart on the women’s team with much less fanfare. But make no mistake about it, the result for Oregon basketball was just about the same.
Although the West Linn native came to Eugene as the four-time state champion, Pritchard’s arrival almost went under the radar, believe it or not. At first, he committed to Oklahoma, but when he changed his mind, he changed the course of Dana Altman’s program.
It’s no coincidence that the Ducks made it to their first final four in Pritchard’s freshman season. He took the point guard position away from Casey Benson at the Maui Invitational early in that 2016-17 season.
Pritchard never gave up his starting spot.
To Benson’s credit, he embraced his reserve role and was a huge part of that special season that no Duck fan will ever forget. And to Pritchard’s credit, he never took his place on the team for granted. Instead, he ran with his elevated responsibilities and helped Oregon to a place it had never been to since 1939.
There wouldn’t be a sophomore slump, a junior jinx or a senior slide.
His career at Oregon ended up as one of those legendary careers that, like his arrival, almost goes under the radar. Thanks to the talent around him, Pritchard didn’t have to be the focus for the opposition under his senior season and despite that added attention, Pritchard didn’t flounder.
Quite the contrary. Pritchard turned in one of the best years and careers a Duck has ever turned in and it would have been even better if the season wasn’t cut short due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
When the year ended, Pritchard wound up being the winningest Duck player ever with 105 victories, 144 games and 140 starts. He was also the first player in Pac-12 history to have 1,900 career points, 500 career rebounds and 600 career assists. Pritchard was second on the Oregon list in steals (211), fourth in scoring with 1,938 points, and second in three-pointers made with 288, which is ninth all-time in Pac-12 history.
Pritchard might have to build a bigger mantle in his house to put all of the awards he was given after this season. He received:
– Lute Olson Award Player of the Year
– Pac-12 Player of the Year,
– All-Pac-12 First Team
– Naismith Trophy Finalist (5 players)
– Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award
– Wooden Award National Ballot (15 players)
– Oscar Robertson Trophy Midseason List (12 players)
– First Team All-America (Associated Press, NABC, Sporting News, The Athletic, ESPN, CBS Sports, NBC Sports, Basketball Times, Bleacher Report, NCAA March Madness, Stadium, USA Today)
– Second Team All-America (USBWA)
Other than that, it was just a ho-hum season.
So how did Pritchard explode onto the scene for his senior season?
He was touted as being the Ducks’ main guy. There wasn’t a Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell, Chris Boucher, Bol Bol, Louis King, Paul White or Kenny Wooten walking through that door.
This most current team was truly Pritchard’s team and he flourished with big shot after big shot and big win after big win.
It began with pair of wins over teams ranked 12th in Memphis at the Moda Center in Portland and Seton Hall in the Bahama. Next came the highest ranked non-conference road win over then No. 5 Michigan, a 71-70 overtime victory.
Pritchard led with 23 points and made the national talking heads take notice since that game happened to be on CBS on a Saturday afternoon back east.
After some easy cupcake wins in December, which this team deserved after running a gauntlet of Top 10 opponents, the Pac-12 season began and Oregon, and Pritchard, was more than ready for the challenge.
The Ducks went 7-2 in the first half of the conference season, including a buzzer-beating win in Seattle over the Huskies by none other than the senior guard. When he was yelling, “This is my city!” to the Washington crowd, he might have been saying that this was his conference and his time to shine.
Oregon suffered a few defeats in the second half of the Pac-12 schedule and after a 77-72 loss at Arizona State, something clicked and the Ducks went on a roll and continued for the rest of the year.
Arizona was the first victim as Pritchard went full-on Pritchard with 38 points in the 73-72 overtime win. All 38 points came in regulation, believe it or not. He might have gone for 45, but like a true point guard, Pritchard went into dishing-it-out mode and Shakur Juiston scored all nine in the extra period, including the game-winner with 1.4 seconds left.
That win lifted the Ducks to a much-needed win over the Beavers and then a weekend sweep over the Bay Area schools where the Ducks dominated.
Then suddenly, it was all over after a pandemic ended sports all over America.
Maybe Oregon officials had an inkling of the future as the Ducks celebrated a regular season Pac-12 championship with a net cutting ceremony. Watching Pritchard cut down nets would be the last image Oregon fans would see of the in-state superstar.
And while the surrounding circumstances weren’t something no one could possibly imagine, it might have been the perfect way for Pritchard to end his career … on a ladder with scissors in front of thousands of happy and appreciative fans everywhere.
~ Don Smalley