Michelle Smith Feature: After looking elsewhere, Oregon's Bando found her place at home

Lexi Bando’s home in Eugene was backed up to Autzen Stadium.

Her family had season tickets to Oregon football. She lived and breathed Ducks athletics, watched Oregon women’s basketball games at historic Mac Court.

But when it came time for one of the state’s best basketball players to make a college choice, she had something less local in mind.

“I was feeling super adventurous,” Bando said. “I wanted to get away, live in a new state.”

She wanted to play at Gonzaga, where head coach Kelly Graves had built the mid-major program into a nationally elite program.

But before Bando ever got to Spokane, Graves had taken a new job and he was on his way…to Eugene.

“It’s pretty funny the way it turned out,” said Bando, who will play the final regular-season Pac-12 games of her career this weekend against Arizona State and Arizona.

If you had told her, four years ago, when she decided to follow Graves back to her hometown, that she would be two games away from a Pac-12 title, she wouldn’t have believed it.

“I didn’t think I’d be at this point,” Bando said. “I was starting right away as a freshman, having to perform right away. My freshman year, we didn’t make the NIT. My sophomore year we made the NIT. Last year, the Elite Eight, and now it feels like the sky is the limit.”

The sky is the limit for the first-place Ducks, who solidified the inside track to a conference title, largely because of Bando. She has been the glue, the anchor for a program that has risen rapidly, particularly with the addition of young stars such as Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard.

“The first couple of years were really hard, but then we got these amazing recruits,” Bando said. “To have to opportunity to lead these young players, even though they don’t really need my help doing anything, it’s been a source of pride for me.”

Graves said Bando, who is averaging 10.0 points per game with 52 3-pointers on the season, is the player who began this current Oregon legacy by deciding that she would come home to play.

“There wasn’t much to sell her on. We didn’t have a recent tradition at Oregon, and she had a chance to go into a great program at Gonzaga, " Graves said. "But we told her our vision and she believed in me and us as a coaching staff. I’m happy that she is here to see that realization.”

Graves said Bando has played a key role every night she’s on the floor.

“She’s been very steady and she is a kid that can stretch the defense,” Graves said. “People have to stay home on her and that opens things up for other people. Our players look up to her. She challenges Sabrina in practice all the time. They have a nice little rivalry. She’s a winner. That trumps everything else for her.”

Even the pressure of playing in her hometown.

“I have my own cheering section every game,” Bando said. “I have felt pressure in that from time to time, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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