Oregon St. never trailed, and built as large as a 16 point lead twice in the first half, but then had to repeatedly fend off San Diego from the West Coast Conference in the second half to claim a 7 point win in the first ever basketball game at the MGM Grand Hotel, the future site of the Pac-12 Tournament.
The neutral site game that was the first of several dry runs for the conference and the hotel of game ops, and the only one involving a conference team, drew only an announced crowd of 840 on the long holiday weekend evening, though it did include an interested Gary Payton. But the few who were there saw arguably the best half of basketball Oregon St. has played this season, opening a 44-29 lead at the break, followed by one of the sloppiest, as the Beavers turned the ball over a dozen times in the second half.
Increased effort and pressure by the Toreros had a lot to do with it, and the result was a 20-8 San Diego advantage on points off turnovers, which ultimately allowed the Toreros to pull within 2 points with just under 4 minutes to go.
But the Beavers' resilience, Eric Moreland's career best game, and yet another big night by Roberto Nelson kept Oregon St. (9-2) undefeated in December, as Moreland and Nelson both posted co-game highs of 20 points. Moreland also had a double double, with a game high 10 rebounds to go along with his career scoring high.
"We'll look at the film and figure out what to do about what happened in the second half," Moreland said, "but overall, we got the job done. We have a lot to work on, though."
After a 1 game experiment with Devon Collier in the starting lineup, and Joe Burton coming off the bench, Oregon St. head coach Craig Robinson reversed that, and it paid off, as Collier came off the bench for 18 points, and Burton had 13, including a pair of critical answers for San Diego layups midway in the second half, to go along with 6 rebounds and 3 assists.
"I decided to go back to Joe in the starting lineup, with Devon coming off the bench, in part because of defensive matchup," Robinson said, "but we just work better with that rotation."
Initially, that plan worked to a tee, as a Burton hook and a Nelson 3 pointer produced a 7-0 run early. Oregon St.'s overall size advantage resulted in a 16-8 early lead, as the Beavers were able to out-rebound the Toreros.
Another Nelson 3 pointer put Oregon up 21-10 just past the midway point of the first half, for the first double digit lead of the game, and the Beavers opened the lead to 16 points, which was as large as any advantage in the game, when Olaf Schaftenaar hit a 3 pointer with 7:52 to go before the break.
Ahmad Starks got his first basket of the game 18 seconds before halftime, on a layup to equal that largest lead, putting the Beavers up 44-28, before taking a 44-29 lead into the locker room.
Nelson and Moreland both had 12 points at the break, as Moreland was 5 of 5, and 1 for 1 at the line, as Oregon St. shot 59% from the field, and 4 of 5 3 pointers. Meanwhile, San Diego shot only 37.5% in the first half, and made only 1 of 6 3 pointers, and were led by Ken Rancifer's 9 points.
San Diego had used a sagging man to man defense in the first half, similar to what Howard had tried, with some success, but Oregon St. reacted much better to it this time. The Toreros switched to a much more aggressive style in the second half, and it changed the game.
Jarmal Reid's dunk opened the Oregon St. advantage to 50-35 4 minutes into the second half, but the Beavers never led by as much again.
Layups by Chris Anderson and Mike Davis twice pulled San Diego within 4 points midway in the second half, only to have Burton answer both times.
Moreland equaled his previous career scoring high of 14 points to reopen a 7 point lead with 8:41 to go, and the free throws that ensured him a career best night made it 65-57 Oregon St. with 7:18 left.
But San Diego continued to pressure the Beavers, and an Anderson 3 pointer made it a 3 point game about a minute later, and a pair of Sinis free throws pulled the Toreros within 2 points, down only 74-72, with just under 4 minutes to go.
That was as close as it got though, as Moreland answered with a dunk, and Reid's dunk plus a free throw made it 81-72 Oregon St. with 1:40 left.
San Diego made one last charge, as Dee answered another Moreland dunk with a 28 foot 3 pointer, and after an Oregon St. turnover, Chris Manresa's dunk made it an 83-79 game. But the Beavers shut out the Toreros over the final 32 seconds of the game, and Nelson's free throws with 20 seconds left produced the 86-79 final score.
"We needed a hard fought game, one that we needed to dig deep to get that's not at Gill," Robinson said.
Manresa led San Diego, who dropped below .500 for the season to 6-7, with 18 points, on 7 of 11 shooting, and 9 rebounds. Rancifer added 14 points, Dee 12, and Anderson 11.
Oregon St. shot 59% for the game, making 29 of 49 shots, and held San Diego to only 41% shooting. And the Beavers out-rebounded the Toreros, though only 30-29. But the stat of the game was San Diego winning the turnover battle 17-9, which had a lot to do with the Toreros getting up 19 more shots than the Beavers. That, in turn, fueled their furious second half comeback.
"We're still not communicating well at times on defense," Robinson felt. "We can be as good as we want to be if we get better on our man defense; that's where the improvement has to come from."
Oregon St. will be off for a week for Christmas, before hosting Towson next Saturday at 1 PM, a game moved earlier in the day in order to complete it before the Valero Alamo Bowl, in which Oregon St. will take on Texas, starting at 3:45 PM PST. A bowl game viewing party at Gill with the basketball team will follow the game.