Pac-12 Feature: Oregon freshman duo look for a strong regular-season finish

Ruthy Hebard said the most “freshman” things she’s done this year was walk into a classroom, sit down and discover she was in the wrong class.

Sabrina Ionescu, meanwhile, said her most “freshman” moments were “some slips and falls, doing goofy stuff like that.”

But on the court, neither of them have played like freshmen for the Ducks.

“Is there a better duo of freshmen in the country?,” asked Oregon coach Kelley Graves. Graves thinks he knows the answer.

Hebard, the 6-foot-4 forward from Fairbanks, Alaska, is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 14.5 points and 8.8 rebounds a game. Ioenscu, the high school All-American guard from Walnut Creek, Calif., is averaging 13.7 points a game. Hebard has started 22 games this season, Ionescu 20.

The Ducks open another big weekend in conference play with Friday’s matchup against No. 15 UCLA relying heavily on these young talents. Oregon, which sits in a tie for fifth in the Pac-12 standings with Cal, is 15-9 overall and hoping a late push will get them strong NCAA consideration.

“Of all of the leagues to have to play a lot of freshmen, this isn’t the one,” Graves said. “I’m very proud of our team. We have three road wins. That’s big.”

Ionescu came to Eugene as the national high school player of the year, a relatively late commit, who literally arrived at Graves’ doorstep to let him know she was coming to Oregon, surprising him at a practice with her in-person announcement.

“We knew we had a very good player,” Graves said. “How many freshman can come in and be in the top 10 in the Pac-12 in eight categories? She’s very well-rounded. And she’s a leader. When we didn’t have her on the floor (Ionescu missed four games with injury), we were a little rudderless. She’s such a competitor and our kids respond to that.”

Ionescu said she isn’t focusing on the individual impact she’s having.

“I care more that we are growing collectively,” Ionescu said. “We are young, but we can’t use that as an excuse anymore. We have eight new players and six of us are freshmen and we are playing teams that are a little more experienced, but we are coming together in a good way.”

Hebard was a raw talent when Graves recruited her out of Alaska.

“She’s just scratching the surface of what she can do. What I’ve been most impressed with is her ability to finish,” Graves said. “She has really improved as a defender and she’s very coachable. I don’t believe she knows how good she is. The next six games, she has to go up against Monique Billings, Emily Potter, Erica McCall and Kristine Anigwe. If that doesn’t make you better, nothing will.”

Hebard, who leads the conference with a .651 field-goal percentage, said she getting “a lot more” playing time than she thought she would in her first season and that she knows she has a lot to work on.

“But I’m feeling a little more confident in every game,” Hebard said.

And she said she feels like she and her teammates know what to expect as the conference season hits the stretch run, and the postseason approaches quickly.

“We know enough,” Hebard said. “It’s time to buckle down and focus.”

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse.

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