West Linn's Payton Pritchard stars for Team USA in FIBA U19 World Cup
Payton Pritchard has long been a bigshot in the world of Oregon high school boys basketball.
Pritchard, a 2016 West Linn graduate and four-time state champion, has made his mark at the college level, too, starting as a freshman point guard for the University of Oregon as it played its way into the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.
Now, however, the rest of the world is beginning to learn what Oregon high school and Pac-12 fans already know — Pritchard is something special.
Pritchard, 19 and looking ahead to his sophomore season with the Ducks men's team, just finished a nine-day stretch in Cairo, Egypt, playing for Team USA in the 2017 FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup.
The Americans won six of seven games in the tournament — held July 1-9 at the Cairo Stadium Indoor Halls Complex — their only misstep along the way a 99-87 loss to eventual tournament champion Canada in the tournament semifinals on July 8.
Needless to say, the famously competitive Pritchard found it tough to get past that one consequential loss.
"The tournament was great, but it was kind of disappointing that we lost in the semis," Pritchard said on Tuesday from West Linn. "We just didn't show up that game and Canada had a great game plan."
Canada had never beaten the USA in five previous games in this tournament, including losses to the USA in the quarterfinals in 2009 and 2013, but held the upper hand this time. Canada's RJ Barrett collected 38 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists to lead his team to victory, but Pritchard (16 points, four rebounds and four assists) knew his team just hadn't done enough.
"We didn't execute or hit free throws and that led to us losing," said Pritchard, who was later named to the tournament's All-Star Five after averaging nine points a game to go with 3.1 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals. "It's disappointing because we were easily the most talented, the best team in the tournament, but we didn't get it done. It's really just whether guys want to compete or not, really battle, and that kind of hurt us."
Outside of the semifinal, however, Pritchard and the Americans — led by University of Kentucky coach John Calipari — were just flat great in Cairo. They opened group play with a 108-48 win over Iran on July 1, then added wins over Angola (109-68 on July 2), Italy (98-65 on July 4) and Mali (117-69 on July 5) to take the top seed out of their pool. After that, Team USA followed up with an 81-59 win over Germany in the July 7 quarterfinals, and a 96-72 victory vs. Spain in the third-place game on July 9.
Pritchard's game-by-game stats from group play are as follows: Iran — four points, two assists and one steal; Angola — five points, one rebound, one assist and two steals; Italy — seven points, four rebounds, two assists and three steals; and Mali — 11 points, seven rebounds, five assists and one steal.
"I think I took advantage of the opportunities I had," Pritchard explained. "You're not playing the whole game so … when I was in there, I was just going to play my game and compete on defense and do whatever it takes to win."
In the win over Germany in the quarterfinals, just two points separated the two teams in a closely fought first half before Team USA pulled away and advanced to its semifinal showdown with Canada. Austin Wiley led the U.S. with 19 points and 10 rebounds, Carsen Edwards added 12 points, and Pritchard tacked on eight points, one rebound, two assists and three steals.
And against Spain, Pritchard was solid once again, finishing with 12 points, three rebounds, six assists and one steal.
"It was up there, seeing overseas talent and guys that could be NBA prospects," Pritchard said. "Seeing those types of players was cool."
That set the table for the matchup against Canada in the semifinals, but this time — for the first time in a long time — things did not go America's way. With Barrett leading the way and Abu Kigab — who will join Pritchard at Oregon this fall — adding 14 points, six rebounds and four assists, the Canadians pulled away to win 99-87.
In that game, Pritchard stepped up for a personal best of 16 points, along with four rebounds, four assists and one steal.
While still stung by the loss, Pritchard appreciated the great competition the tournament provided.
"This year has been great. The talent across the board that I've gotten to play against, I feel like it's just made me better and I'm ready to take next year to a whole other level," Pritchard said. "I feel like I'm stronger. Mentally and physically, I feel like I've gotten stronger throughout this year. And I'm just more confident."
Over the course of his first year following graduation from West Linn High School, Pritchard has traversed a basketball odyssey like almost no one else, battling his way into the Ducks' starting lineup after just five games and helping Oregon take off on a 31-4 tear that took the team within one game of a national championship appearance.
"Going in (to my freshman year at Oregon) was difficult. I'd say that it was a lot like my freshman year of high school, to be honest," Pritchard said. "My freshman year of high school, I didn't start right away, and I had to come in to college and earn my spot. I just had to prove to everybody that I deserved it. I had to earn every minute to get my spot. Nothing was given to me and I think that's what made me better. I had to work for every little thing I got and that right there gets you better."
The key to all his success, Pritchard said, was the mental toughness he learned during his high school career under former West Linn coach Eric Viukhola.
"I was totally prepared for the mental side of it. That was not a challenge," he said. "I've got to give credit to (Viukhola) for that because he's one of the best coaches in Oregon high school sports ever. Winning four straight (state championships) was great, but he mentally prepared us and challenged us every day at practice.
"Mentally, going into college, I was prepared for everything. I was always just locked in. If there's one thing I could compliment him on, it's the fact that he came to work every day with us and he never took it on me easy on me, either. He challenged me every day to be at my best and I've got to give him big thanks for that because there was no loafing around for me."
Following his experiences in Egypt — during which he and his fellow Team USA members got to visit the pyramids on the Giza Plateau outside of Cairo ("It was definitely a great experience and one of the experiences I'll always remember," he said) — Pritchard needed some down time, and there's no better place for that than at the West Linn home of his parents, Melissa and Terry Pritchard.
That said, getting there wasn't easy. His trip home lasted more than 32 hours — in part because of a long (8-10 hours) delay in Washington, D.C. — but he was back in gear by Tuesday, working out and already starting preparations for the Ducks' 2017-18 season.
At the same time, he was relishing the memories he'd made with Team USA in Egypt.
"Really getting close to … teammates, Carsen Edwards, Kevin Huerter — I was already close with P.J. Washington — those experiences with those guys, you get close to them and you'll have that bond with them for a lifetime," Pritchard said.
As great as all that was, it's clear that, no matter where Pritchard's travels take him, West Linn will always be home.
"Anything for the folks in West Linn," he said. "I love this community. It's where I'm from."