Anatomy Of An Upset
SEATTLE — As great leaders do, the Oregon coaching staff devised a game plan for beating Washington on Friday that was equal parts attitude and execution.
The challenge was monumental: On Friday night, sixth-seeded Oregon was to face the third-seeded and 11th-ranked Huskies, led by newly crowned NCAA all-time leading scorer Kelsey Plum. The Ducks were encouraged but also a little exhausted after their first-round win Thursday over Arizona. Washington, meanwhile, had a bye Thursday. That provided more time to prepare for the Ducks, who hosted the Huskies in Eugene on Dec. 30 and lost by 22.
Over the course of Friday morning and afternoon, leading up to the 8:30 p.m. tip, UO coach Kelly Graves and his staff tinkered with the Ducks' offensive and defensive schemes, all the while laying a foundation of belief. "We all know the challenge we have ahead of us," Graves told the Ducks at their Friday morning film session in the St. Helen's Room of the downtown Westin Hotel. "But the reality is, we have nothing to lose. We can play loose and free. … There's no question we can win this game. We've got to go in believing, and we've got to play our butts off. But it should be fun."
Over the ensuing half-hour film session, an hourlong shootaround in the afternoon — in UW's home gym on campus, of all places — and then pregame at KeyArena, Graves stuck to that message. Assistant coach Nicole Powell had prepared the scouting report on the Huskies; Jodie Berry provided input on the offensive end, as did Mark Campbell defensively.
In the hours before the game, no one could have predicted the ensuing drama — a tightly contested first half, Plum's explosion in the third quarter, and Oregon's dramatic comeback from a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit to win on two Sabrina Ionescu free throws with 6.4 seconds left in the game. But each twist and turn the game took, it turned out, was foreshadowed at some point earlier in the day.
"You guys, Nicole nailed this scout," Campbell had told the Ducks during their morning film review. "We've got these guys figured out." Ultimately, every last coaching point, every bit of effort the players expended later that evening, was necessary to pull off the upset.
From the opening tip, the Ducks revealed their most significant X-and-O wrinkle. After Oregon failed to score on its end, the UO women dropped back on defense — where coaches tasked a guard, Ionescu, with defending UW post Chantel Osahor. The nation's leading rebounder, Osahor liked to camp out on the wing to exploit her skills as a passer and three-point shooter, at least early in possessions.
Oregon's defensive plan, in a nutshell, was to limit Osahor and Plum to whatever extent possible, and make other Huskies beat them. "It will take team defense for 40 minutes," Powell said Friday morning, reading from the very first line of her scouting report. There was no way to stop Plum, who a week earlier scored 57 in a game to become the NCAA's career scoring leader. "But we can't let her get 44 again," Powell said, alluding to Plum's output in UW's win at Oregon in December.
Sophomore guard Maite Cazorla, who missed that December game, was tasked with defending Plum — with help from her teammates at every turn. By the end of the first quarter, Plum had seven points, but Oregon had a 22-17 lead. While Plum and Osahor combined to go 4-of-6, the Ducks' plan to compel other Huskies to shoot had worked; the rest of the UW team was 3-of-8.
The Ducks also forced three turnovers in the quarter, and Graves had to be particularly thrilled with one. Midway through the quarter, Ionescu stepped in front of a driving Aarion McDonald and drew a foul, following through on a point Graves made in the morning film review. After replaying clips from December of Huskies driving to the hoop, past late-arriving UO defenders, Graves said emphatically, "Suck it up and take the charge!" Ionescu obliged hours later in the first quarter.
Like Cazorla, Ionescu also didn't play against UW in December. The impact of their presence was felt acutely in Friday's first quarter. The duo combined for 13 of the Ducks' 22 points, without a single turnover; any upset also requires just a bit of luck, and the Ducks got some late in the quarter — just before the shot-clock buzzer sounded, Ionescu threw up a three-pointer that banked in.
Hours earlier, the Ducks had burst into applause and laughter when the team bus driver executed an impossible turn, onto a narrow street lined with cars during the drive to KeyArena. Some joked that it was a sign this would be Oregon's night. Then Ionescu banked in her three a couple hours later. Things were trending in the right direction.
That positive momentum was gone during the opening minutes of the second quarter. Oregon missed a couple makable baskets, including a layin by Lexi Bando on a nifty inbounds set. Plum, meanwhile, scored six straight to give Washington a 23-22 lead.
The good news was, she was getting her points on tough, contested midrange jump shots, rather than open threes or layups at the rim. "She's going to make some of those, you guys; you can't get discouraged," Graves said in film review Friday morning, as video played of Plum making similar shots back in December. "That, we'll live with," Powell added.
The last two of Plum's six-point outburst came at the free-throw line. Incredibly, those ended up being her only free-throw attempts of the game. During the 2015-16 regular season, Oregon won at UW in part by limiting Plum to four attempts from the line; in Eugene earlier this season, she got to the line 15 times, and made 13.
Coaches tasked Cazorla with defending the NCAA's career scoring leader, without fouling. Somehow she did so. "It was hard," Cazorla said late Friday night, after the Ducks had returned to the Westin. "I was just trying to contest her shots, and if she makes it, she makes it. But it was a team effort, too. The posts had to help." That was never more true than on the game's final possession, when freshman post Ruthy Hebard stepped up to double-team Plum on her desperate — and errant — game-winning three-point attempt.
During the December regular-season matchup, Oregon played tough with UW for most of the first half before, Graves said, playing like freshmen as UW pulled away. The second quarter Friday seemed like a repeat, as the Ducks missed their first seven shots to fall behind. But instead of feeling deflated, the UO women kept fighting — with Graves leading the charge from the bench.
Any time his team committed a foul or a turnover, Graves generally eschewed harsh correction in favor of encouragement, clapping his hands for emphasis. In the locker room after the game, he pulled out his personal coaching notes and pointed to the first line: "Stay positive with the team. Build 'em up, keep 'em loose." He was part head coach, part head cheerleader, all night.
The positivity paid off, as the Ducks regained their footing before halftime. They retook the lead at 28-26 on a putback by Mallory McGwire, and went up five on a Bando three-pointer. At halftime, the Ducks were clinging to a narrow lead, 32-31.
Much was discussed by the Ducks in the halftime locker room, first among players as coaches huddled among themselves, then with the staff providing adjustments to the team. Just before Oregon returned to the court to warm up for the second half, Graves again clapped his hands with encouragement: "All right, you guys, it's a 20-minute game. We've got to win it with toughness and poise." At the time, he couldn't have known how much of each the Ducks would need, and demonstrate.
Of Washington's first 10 possessions in the third quarter, the Huskies scored on eight — with Plum hitting five shots. The last of those capped a 9-0 run to put UW ahead 48-41. During that run, Plum scrambled to corral a loose ball and kicked to Natalie Romeo for a three-pointer. KeyArena, with a sold-out crowd of 9,686 fans screaming mostly for the hometown team, became a factor for the first time.
Plum's explosion was no surprise to the Ducks. "She's going to look to go off in the second half," Bando told her teammates at halftime, when Plum had a modest 15 points. Freshman Morgan Yaeger added, "She's gonna come out hungry, so just match it." That was easier said than done, of course.
The other primary issue players raised among themselves at halftime was second-chance points. Washington had seven in the first half, via six offensive rebounds.
"They're outhustling us," UO senior Jacinta Vandenberg told her teammates, pulling no punches. A few minutes later, in the most bleak moments of the third quarter, that remained the case — Washington's last seven points of the period came after offensive rebounds. The Huskies led 57-51 entering the fourth.
Toughness and poise, Graves had requested at halftime. After Plum made a three-pointer early in the fourth quarter for UW's biggest lead, 60-51, toughness and poise were never more critical.
With the Ducks in a nine-point hole, their most experienced starter, Bando, came through. She hit a three-pointer and then a midrange jumper as Oregon at least got back to trading baskets, to stay within 64-56. Then, the night's biggest turning point: Bando made three-pointers on back-to-back possessions, Ionescu pulled up for a jumper and then the freshman added a runner that capped a 10-0 run by the Ducks, to a 66-64 lead.
During that run Plum missed three times, and Osahor missed once. But the Ducks also coaxed a turnover by McDonald, and a three-point miss by Romeo. "Those were some big-time pressure shots those kids had to hit," Campbell said later. "Fortunately we were able to force their hand, and make those kids have to step up."
The Huskies weren't quite done; Osahor scored to forge a 66-66 tie, then converted a three-point play for a 69-66 lead. The Ducks missed three times, and the Huskies had a chance to extend their lead with less than two minutes to play. Plum got the ball and put up a jumper with 1:41 left, and it missed, before being grabbed by UO reserve forward Oti Gildon.
That set up a jumper on the other end by Bando — helped by a screen from Gildon. And Oregon's final possession included yet another huge play from Gildon, an offensive rebound that ultimately kept the ball in the Ducks' hands for Ionescu's drive that set up the game-winning free throws.
Hours earlier, Powell told the Ducks it would take a 40-minute effort to win. Gildon only ended up playing 16 on Friday. But by staying mentally engaged throughout, she put herself in position to be a game-changer. "It's hard," Gildon acknowledged later. "You've got to make sure you're focused on the bench, make sure you're engaged, listen at all times. Coach always says, 'We might need you.' And he needed me tonight."
For as talented as Plum is, she missed her final seven attempts Friday night. It was the young Ducks who came through with toughness and poise down the stretch — none more so than Ionescu on her game-winning free throws.
It was easy in that moment to think back to pregame, and Ionescu's admonition to the Ducks just before they left the locker room. "If we don't lock in mentally," Ionescu said, "there's no point in playing." Here was a chance to follow through herself.
She made the first, then went through her routine at the line again. A practice shot without the ball, dry her hands on her jersey, spin the ball three times after receiving it from an official and dribble once.
With the score tied 69-69, Ionescu put up her second attempt. It was good. The Ducks led, 70-69, and held on to win after double-teaming Plum to force her desperation three at the buzzer.
— Oregon WBB (@OregonWBB) March 4, 2017
Players jubilantly poured into the locker room, then sat and waited for the coaches, buzzing with energy. "Were y'all nervous on my free throws," Ionescu asked. Her teammates collectively responded with a shout: "No!"
The Ducks had stayed positive, and stayed locked in mentally. And by doing so, they got to stay in Seattle for another game, Saturday's semifinal against Stanford.
As he addressed the locker room postgame, Graves grappled with emotion. "The whole staff, you guys did a hell of a job tonight," he said. "You put those kids in position to win. I don't know if I've ever been more proud of a team than tonight. Man, we fought."