Long before he hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds to play in No. 21 Oregon’s 89-87 victory over No. 2 UCLA -- the shot he tossed from somewhere in the thicket of pine trees etched onto the court at Matthew Knight Arena -- Dillon Brooks snarled after he made his first 3-pointer of the night.
Then he clenched his right fist and struck his chest.
He had come to the gym ready. For anything.
“We wanted him to get the last shot,” Oregon coach Dana Altman told ESPN’s Bill Walton and Roxy Bernstein afterward, “because he’s not afraid to take it.”
With the win -- the program’s fifth victory over a top-two UCLA squad -- Brooks (23 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two steals) and the Ducks sent a message to the nation on Wednesday night: I’m back ... We’re back.
They finally resembled the image we envisioned over the summer. They finally played like the powerhouse capable of securing the school’s first trip to the Final Four since 1939. They finally followed a leader who brought back the you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us attitude that fueled last season’s success.
Oregon left last season’s Elite Eight loss to Oklahoma as a projected national title contender in 2016-17. Most expected the Ducks to compete for the Pac-12 and national crowns. Then Brooks suffered a foot injury that sidelined him throughout the preseason and cost him Oregon's first three games.
The Ducks lost a true road game to a better-than-we-realized Baylor squad in their second contest of the season and fell to a mediocre Georgetown team in Brooks’ debut. He played just 13 minutes against the Hoyas. The preseason All-American missed 21 of his first 32 shots this season.
He improved, though. And the Ducks improved. They got lost in the national picture, however, because they were a two-loss squad in a conversation dominated by Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Villanova and Lonzo Ball’s undefeated UCLA squad.
On Wednesday night, Oregon had a stage and a chance to surprise those who had dismissed the squad as a true threat to the Bruins.
Just minutes into the wild affair, Brooks had that look, that growl.
He had the same persona during last season's Sweet 16, when he frustrated Duke in a victory that concluded with Grayson Allen refusing to shake his hand and Mike Krzyzewski scolding Brooks for his bravado. Brooks had trash-talked the Blue Devils' bench and played with the arrogance of a young man who told reporters before the game he did not fear Duke. He scored 22 points in that win. He did not fear Duke.
He also played with an ornery vibe against the Bruins on Wednesday in a 40-minute war in Eugene.
With 13:13 to play, Oregon led by eight points. The Bruins seemed exhausted and frustrated. Nothing shameful about a road loss to a top-25 team in a league game.
Then Ball chimed in.
The game sometimes seeks a man with a cape, and Ball always keeps his nearby. His barrage of 3-pointers and his team’s renewed commitment to defense shifted the game in UCLA’s favor. In a little more than seven minutes, UCLA had launched a zany 21-5 run and seized a late eight-point advantage. But the Ducks responded, and after Bryce Alford missed a key free throw, Brooks got the rebound and tossed the ball to Payton Pritchard, who put the ball back in Brooks’ hands with four seconds left.
After UCLA’s late rally, a question emerged: Will any opponent beat UCLA in March? When Ball (14 points) begins to freestyle and the Bruins -- a team with a true road win at then-No. 1 Kentucky -- get hot from the perimeter, can Duke, Kansas, Villanova or some other contender defeat Steve Alford’s squad?
After Brooks nailed a game-winning 3-pointer from the wilderness on his home floor Wednesday night, he and Oregon interrupted the conversation, snatched the mic and answered: We can.