Michelle Smith Feature: Oregon cuts nets, claims first Pac-12 Women's Basketball title
SEATTLE - When the final horn sounded and the Oregon Ducks celebrated their first-ever Pac-12 Tournament title, a 77-57 win over Stanford in their first-ever championship game appearance, it felt not like the end of a story, but a beginning.
This Ducks team, loaded with sophomore and junior stars, anchored by a senior local-girl-made-good, fulfilled its destiny at KeyArena on Sunday night.
And then set itself on a course that could lead to some very big places.
Sabrina Ionescu, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, not only turned in the best scoring night of her young career – with 36 points – she set the title game scoring record. The Ducks, playing in front of the second-biggest crowd (5,387) ever to witness a Pac-12 title game, hit 11 3-pointers, also a tournament record.
They beat the conference’s standard-bearer in Stanford, by 20 points, flustering the vastly improved Cardinal with a persistent zone. They won the rebounding battle, turned 16 Stanford turnovers into 24 points and generally made it a difficult night for the 12-time tournament champs.
“Stanford pushes everybody to their limits,” said Ducks coach Kelly Graves. “They’re the standard by which every program in our conference is judged. Coach VanDerveer, a Hall of Famer, has an awesome team and a team that’s going to represent very well in the NCAA Tournament.
“But today we were the better team.”
And who would argue?
Ionescu and her teammates wanted payback for the loss in Eugene that Stanford dealt them last month. Senior Lexi Bando didn’t play in that game. The Oregon players knew they hadn’t played their best. As Ionescu said, “it stung.”
“It was our mindset coming in (to the title game) that we had some unfinished business,” Ionescu said. “We adjusted from that we did the last game and we were ready to come out.”
Stanford built a quick lead and after a few minutes, Oregon’s adjustment became to take hold. The Ducks pulled ahead just before the end of the first quarter and never trailed again, adding to the lead after each quarter until the game was over.
“We got off to kind of a tough start, but once we got our legs underneath us, I thought defensively, we were on point. The energy was great.”
And Ionescu led the way.
Graves said he knew something was different when he saw the look in his star player’s eye before the game.
“I saw a little twinkle in her eyes as she got off the bus today and at shoot-around at at pre-game,” Graves said. “She had a different look about her.”
In addition to Ionescu’s game-changing day, the Ducks had three other players in double figures – Ruthy Hebard (named to the All-Tournament team), Maite Carzola and Satou Sabally, who played through pain after injured against UCLA in Saturday’s semifinal.
The Ducks’ zone defense made it tough for Stanford’s perimeter shooters. Forward Alanna Smith led the Cardinal with 17 points. McPhee, who had been fighting a head cold all weekend, added 12 and Kianna Williams, who was named to the All-Tournament team, added 11. Stanford was 4 of 14 from beyond the arc.
“Looking forward, this is the type of game that can be very motivating and encouraging to people to really get in the gym and work harder,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, whose program lost just its fifth game in the 17-year history of the Pac-12 Tournament. “We were beaten in every single thing for the most part that we were doing against them. They have a lot of balance. They go inside, they go outside. They had five different players hit 3s. So, it was a tough night.”
McPhee said the Cardinal will double-down and work harder to prepare for the NCAA Tournament.
“It was tough this tournament, but I mean, we’re just going to take what we struggled with this weekend and move forward and prepare for it going into the next tournament,” McPhee said.
The Ducks, with yellow and green confetti covering the floor, cut down the nets after the game, and Graves, who had plenty of experience coaching teams to titles during his long tenure at Gonzaga, finally climbed the ladder himself this time.
“I’ve always stayed in the background on those occasions and I felt like it was appropriate today and I’m glad I got up there,” Graves said. “As a coach, my job is to help these players realize their potential and dreams. For me, to sit back and watch them go up one by one, it’s priceless.”
Graves said the Ducks are “primed and ready for the next phase” of the season, the NCAA Tournament, where they will look to build on last year’s unprecedented trip to the Elite Eight.
This time, they will not be an underdog or a Cinderella story, but a favorite.
“Last year’s run, we didn’t really know what we were doing,” Graves said. “We just kind of got hot and had some fun and stayed loose. This year, as I think you can tell by the record, we’ve stayed focused for the whole year.”
But the Ducks are still loose.
“I think we play better that way, don’t you?” the coach asked. “I think we’ve got all the pieces. We will see how far we can take this.”
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. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.