Michelle Smith WBB Feature: Oregon's Hebard up against challenge at the NCAA Women's Final Four

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Eric Evans/GoDucks.com

The fun has already begun. The greeting at the airport in Tampa. The Wednesday night celebration for the NCAA Women's Final Four teams. Thursday is the media day gauntlet. And Friday, the national semifinals.

Ruthy Hebard, for one, is taking it all in. Because this is precisely why she has played through pain for more than a month.

Hebard, Oregon’s All-Pac-12 forward, sustained a right knee injury in mid-February in a Civil War game against Oregon State. The 6-foot-4 junior from Alaska missed the next two games, and watched her Oregon Ducks fall to both Oregon State and UCLA in back-to-back games.

When she came back, she knew she wasn’t 100 percent. She isn’t 100 percent now. But she’s 100 percent committed to her team’s first Final Four appearance and making the most of it.

The two-time Pac-12 Champion Ducks will face Baylor - the tournament's No. 1 overall seed - on Friday night in Tampa’s Amalie Arena and while star guard Sabrina Ionescu will get most of the national spotlight, the gameplan to beat the Bears and reach the national title game will be to lean heavily on Hebard's ability to contain and compete against one of the nation’s best post players – again.

Hebard will go against Baylor’s Kalani Brown, the 6-foot-8 All-American and one of the biggest guarding challenges in the land. And that comes just days after she went head-to-head with Mississippi State’s 6-foot-7 All-American Teaira McCowan and came out on top.

“It’s exciting to be playing against some of the best post players in the world, in my opinion,” Hebard said. “It’s a challenge, and I want to challenge myself. My team expected me to get the job done on Sunday and I’ll have to do it again on Friday.”

Hebard was named the nation’s top power forward a year ago, earning the Katrina McClain Award from the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). But she wasn’t resting on her accomplishments coming into this pivotal season. She said she spent much of this season learning to play more physically in the paint, but admits that she has been playing through pain since her injury.

“The last two games were tough, but we’ve done a good job with recovery and treatment,” Hebard said. “Of course, my knee isn’t 100 percent. But I don’t want to let anyone down, and so I keep going.”

Oregon coach Kelly Graves said he knows that Hebard is less than 100 percent, and he also knows that she is giving it her all. Because she always does.

“She needs a month, maybe a month and a half off, and that’s the only way it will heal,” Graves said. “But she can’t hurt it any more, so it’s a matter of handling her pain and her strength level. She isn’t quite as explosive and she doesn’t quite have the same lift. But she is so tough, mentally and physically tough. And she’s always smiling.”

Graves called Hebard – who averaged 16.4 points and 9.1 rebounds a game this season, shooting 67.2 percent from the floor to lead the Pac-12 – the “most humble superstar” player he’s ever coached.

“You wouldn’t know that she’s a future first-round WNBA pick and an All-American,” Graves said. “She is a really, really nice person and she has a great disposition. But she showed some real emotion in the Mississippi State game with those blocks. Her clenched fists and her fist-pump. She really cares about this team. She’s a fighter.”

Graves said that Hebard “sets the whole game up for us.” And he expects the same will be true against Baylor.

“When we didn’t have her, we didn’t have a hammer,” Graves said. “You have to help on her or double on her or she is going to score and she’s almost automatic around the rim. And she’s become a very willing passer, which gets our other players good looks. And she runs the pick-and-roll like Karl Malone.”

The Ducks have arrived at the place many expected they would end up when the season began. Hebard said the Ducks are living up to the expectations that they put on themselves this season by reaching the Final Four.

“We are tired of getting knocked out in the Elite Eight,” Hebard said. “I knew what we could accomplish if we played hard for the whole 40 minutes.”

Hebard was at the 2018 Final Four receiving her All-American honor from the WBCA. She wished her teammates were there then and she’s grateful to be here with them now.

“Last year, I just kept thinking ‘I really want my whole team to be here’,” Hebard said. “And I’m so excited we are here together now.”

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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