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McKinley Wright had that look again Thursday. You know the one. Cold steel. Three parts ninja, two parts hunger, one part desperation.
When you’re the best senior guard — maybe the best senior, period — who’s yet to appear in an NCAA Tournament game, the desperation part comes easy.
“No games are guaranteed,” said Wright, whose 21 points and 10 boards Thursday afternoon lifted the Buffs to a 79-72 win over No. 17 Oregon, CU’s first victory over a ranked team since pulling the same trick on the Ducks almost exactly a year ago.
“You can see our game Saturday (against Oregon State) is canceled. Now we’re going to Utah (on) Monday. So you never know.”
You don’t. It was Wright’s fifth straight game of double-digit scoring, and seventh out of his last eight for the 8-3 Buffs. Minnesota’s finest is playing like there’s no tomorrow, because in the age of COVID, he might well be right. You can be rolling on the redeye to Bracketville, only for the captain to tell you, mid-flight, that coronavirus has put the tourney on lockdown, the games are off, no visitors are allowed and they’re turning the plane around.
“From last year, we kind of learned that we can’t take any games for granted, especially with the COVID situation right now,” said Wright, who scored 16 of his 21 points in the second half to keep CU 10-0, all-time, against the Ducks in Boulder. “That ended the season last year. It ended the postseason. Now we never know when we’re going to have a game.
“There’ve been some teams around the country that found out two hours before their game that they’re not playing. So when you’ve got opportunities, like (Thursday), you’ve got to live up to them and make the most out of them.”
The Buffs (2-2 Pac-12) lived up to their end of the bargain against the Ducks (8-2, 3-1), thanks to a defense that limited Oregon to two points over the first three-and-a-half minutes of the second half, all while extending their lead to 47-33.
Wright’s first 3-pointer of the contest, two minutes into the period, gave the hosts an eight-point cushion and breathing room that would prove critical down the stretch. Oregon’s full-court press and cat-quickness can convert turnovers into 7-0 and 8-0 runs over 50-to-55-second intervals, and coach Dana Altman turned up the heat late.
When the temperatures are hottest and the lights are brightest, the best senior guards respond. With CU nursing a six-point bulge with a minute left, Wright dribbled the ball for roughly the final half of the shot clock, then turned on a dime and knifed through the right side of the lane to sink a layup with 33 seconds left that effectively sank the Ducks.
“The one thing I love about McKinley is that all he cares about is winning.,” CU coach Tad Boyle said of Wright, who also soldiered through a nasty collision — head and neck first — with a chair situated along the baseline. “That’s what makes him special, in my mind.”
Special. Essential. CU’s 7-0 this year when Wright scores at least 13 points. The Buffs are 1-3 when he’s at 12 or fewer.
“When you have 100% confidence from your team and your coaches, it just makes my job so much easier,” Wright said. “And lets me play without overthinking the game. So that’s a big reason I came back. For moments like this.”
For the looks. For unfinished business. For Bracketville. For the things you’ll never take for granted, ever again.