Michelle Smith WBB Feature: Oregon, Ionescu look to put words into action

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Sabrina Ionescu was playing it a little close to the vest as the Oregon Ducks returned to the floor earlier this week to begin preparations for the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s been really good to get back in the gym and start practicing again,” Ionescu said. “Yeah, I’m excited for Friday.”

In reality, the time for talking about goals is over. As Oregon takes its home floor Friday against Portland State in the first step of a quest that the Ducks plan to end in Tampa, Fla., at the NCAA Women's Final Four, it’s time for action, particularly after the stinging loss of the Pac-12 Tournament title game to Stanford (64-57) more than a week and a half ago.

“The best is yet to come,” said Ionescu, who is among the front-running candidates for national player of the year awards after a season in which she broke the NCAA record for career triple doubles for men or women. This season to date, Ionescu has averaged 19.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.1 assists per game to rank third in the NCAA.

The Ducks took the week off after the Pac-12 Tournament, to rest and heal — physically and mentally. They put the Stanford game behind them quickly, said head coach Kelly Graves.

“Mississippi State and Notre Dame both lost their conference tournaments and ended up in the championship game last year,” Graves said. “The seeds all held. I don’t think anything changed. It was our third game in three days. Maite (Carzola) was laid up the week before the tournament, Ruthy (Hebard) was playing at less than 100 percent, and we still damn near won that game.”

Ionescu, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, leads the nation’s No. 3-ranked offense heading into the tournament. And will be looking to find their groove again after being held to a season-low scoring effort against the Cardinal. After two straight trips to the Elite Eight, the Ducks and Ionescu want more. Much more.

“We are hungry,” Ionescu said. “We have been there a few times now and we want to get over that Elite Eight hump. If anything, I feel like we have a little more desire to win.”

Expectations have been high on both Ionescu and the Ducks all season. Oregon has been tabbed as a Final Four contender since before games began. Ionescu has been a national star.

Graves said the team has handled it well all season.

“We haven’t been in this situation before and we still won the regular-season championship,” Graves said. “We got shout-outs from LeBron. Kobe is showing up to games. Sue Bird is sitting courtside at Washington. These guys have handled it well. We are 29-4. There is a new article on Sabrina every day. She’s handled it all quite well. She’s had a great season.”

But Ionescu and her teammates aren’t focused on what other people think they should accomplish.

“We’ve lost a few games this season, so if anything, I think some of those expectations have dropped a little,” Ionescu said. “But we know that our fans appreciate us for what we’ve done and I’m not too worried about anybody else.”

The Stanford loss as a chance to bring out the best in the Ducks.

“Adversity brings out true character,” Ionescu said. “I think we learned what we need to improve on. I just think we are super energized for a new season and another opportunity. We are going to work our hardest to control the things we can control. At this point, our next game is not guaranteed. If you are not on your ‘A’ game, you are going to get beat.”

Graves said he believes that his star player is going to have a “special tournament.”

“Sabrina is so talented and she wants it so much. She is going to have that group ready,” Graves said. “I trust her completely. When she shines, there is nobody better. She is going to have a special run here. That’s the kind of person she is.”

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. She was just named winner of the WBCA's Mel Greenberg Media Award, presented annually to a member of the media who has best displayed commitment to advancing the role of the media in women's basketball.

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