Michelle Smith Pac-12 WBB Feature: Pac-12 Women's Basketball Media Day Notebook

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Sabrina Ionescu grabbed her twin brother, Eddy in Tampa, the day after her team lost in the national semifinals and they went for a long walk.

Ionescu, a self-described procrastinator, was cutting it close in terms of making her big decision – would she return to Oregon for her senior season or enter the WNBA draft. She had already written out her pro-con list, talked and texted with the family and friends who wanted to give her their opinions. She felt calm to start. And then less calm.

“I had like 30 minutes to decide,” Ionescu said. “We were walking and talking and I just knew there was no way I was going to call (coach Kelly Graves) or my teammates and tell them, I was leaving. It just didn’t feel right…I made the best decision.”

Ionescu called Graves, who promptly put her on speaker phone with his entire family in Eugene. That conversation ended with deafening cheers from the Graves clan.

“It was a sigh of relief after that. And then it was time to get back to work,” Ionescu said.

“I told her I would love her and support her, no matter what she decided to do,” said Graves. “She is always family to us.”

And now that family is going to try to win a title together.

The Ducks open the season as one of the favorites to win an NCAA title. They are experienced with Ionescu, center Ruthy Hebard, forward Satou Sabally and the addition of USC graduate transfer guard Minyon Moore.

“We are just trying to stay ahead of everybody else,” Graves said.

That chance to play for a title is “ultimately why I came back,” Ionescu said.

“This team has given so much to me and that’s ultimately why I came back for my senior year is because of the people that are around me and that sacrificed so much for me,” Ionescu said. “I’m just super excited to get back with the team and continue to be the best role model, the best basketball player and the best person that I can is what ultimately drives me.”

The expectations of a championship are a concern.

“For me personally, it doesn't change anything at all,” Ionescu said. “Every day that I step foot on the practice court, in the gym, I try and be the best basketball player that I can, regardless of if we're a 10 seed, if we're a 1 seed, whatever seed we are. Obviously outside expectations are different on us this year. Seeding is different. All that stuff, all that outside noise is different. But for us internally and for our program, I think we all view each other the same, and our goal is the same.”

Ionescu said she doesn’t think she will get over that loss to Baylor in the semifinals last spring, a game in which the Ducks – one of the top perimeter shooting teams in the nation – made just one of their 13 3-point attempts.

“My attention is elsewhere now, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over that loss,” Ionescu said. “We are definitely learning a lot from that game and what we need to do and what we need to improve on.”

Arizona builds on WNIT title

There were only two teams in Division I women’s basketball to finish their season with a win. The NCAA Champion Baylor Bears and the Arizona Wildcats.

Arizona won six straight postseason games to win the WNIT title, a springboard into a season of high expectations. After being picked to finish 11th last season, the Wildcats have been picked to finish sixth this season – the program’s highest spot in the preseason poll since 2005-06 - with a core group of returners, including Aari McDonald, the nation’s top returning scorer, and sophomore Cate Reese.

From six wins in 2017-18 to 24 wins in 2018-19 and now the Wildcats are looking at the NCAA Tournament.

The Wildcats’ postseason run was made all the sweeter by the growing crowds that came to McKale Center to watch the games, including a sell-out for the title game.

That run led to a huge increase in season ticket sales for the new season.

“I just give Adia (Barnes) so much credit,” said UCLA coach Cori Close. “Not only did she get her team playing their best basketball in March, but she rallied an entire community to get behind that team in a really special way. We all need to celebrate that because that is growing our game and growing enthusiasm for the journey of women’s basketball.”

Barnes said the WNIT run was more than she thought it would be.

“You know, a lot of people asked me if I was disappointed that we didn’t make the tournament,” Barnes said. “I mean, of course you are. You always want to make the tournament. But it was the absolute best thing for our program and where we're at. I mean, going to the NIT, playing six games, ending the season with a win, having momentum carry over to this year, it was the best thing.

“I think one of the most rewarding things was seeing how the city just gravitated towards it. They were hungry for excitement with women's basketball, and the crowd just grew every single game. It was fun. We weren't focused on the crowd. People were like, ‘Oh, you were marketing, you were doing this and that’. No, I was having fun and it doesn't take a lot to tweet, so thank goodness for social media and you guys, because it was easy.”

The WNIT is now no longer enough.

“I know that the NIT, like we weren't satisfied,” McDonald said. “So just winning that will make myself and my teammates hungrier for this year, and we're hoping for better things.”

Barnes said she will not pay a lot of attention to where her team has been picked, only how they play.

“It’s a lot easier when you're picked 11th and 10th because if you go up one spot, it's a great season. I don't really get into a lot of that stuff because, regardless of where you're picked, you've got to still go out -- this is the best conference in the country,” Barnes said. “You've got to still go out and play… To be honest, our goal is to make the tournament. Yes, winning the WNIT was fabulous, but now we want more.”

Huskies seek momentum

Does momentum last for seven months? The Washington Huskies believe it does.

An impressive and unexpected run to the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas last March as a No. 11 seed redefined perceptions and expectations for the Huskies heading into the 2019-20 season.

“The momentum with which we ended the season carried us in our spring workouts and into the summer. I definitely believe that you can carry momentum from one season to the next,” said Huskies head coach Jody Wynn. “A lot of confidence was gained. It ignited an incredible work ethic in our players for our players to be able to taste success again in this upcoming season.”

Led by senior guard Amber Melgoza, one of the most consistent scorers in the nation, Washington will return four starters, including junior Missy Peterson, whose game-winning shot knocked No. 3 seed Oregon State out of the tournament in the quarterfinals and set this makeover in motion and 6-foot-4 sophomore center Darcy Rees.

“Our mentality has changed,” Melgoza said.

The Huskies finished 11-21 last season, but none of that matters six months later.

Wynn said she wants her team to be known for its grit and toughness, among other things.

“Grit, toughness, camaraderie, connectivity, that we can do anything together,” Wynn said. “You know, never quit, pursue the glass ceiling. I think these are life lessons that they're going to take well into the working world. And if somebody tells you you're not good enough, you're not pretty enough, you're not tall enough, you're not smart enough, just keep pounding on that door and fighting through and believing in yourself so you can then believe in each other.”

New face, familiar face

The new face in the Pac-12 coaching ranks isn’t a new face at all.

Charmin Smith is the head coach at Cal after serving as an assistant coach for the Bears under Lindsay Gottlieb and Joanne Boyle for 12 seasons. And Smith had a stellar college career playing for Tara VanDerveer at Stanford from 1993-97 and coaching there as well under VanDerveer.

Smith walked into her team’s press conference on Media Day and began her opening statement. A Pac-12 staff member rushed up to hand her the microphone. So, some of this is still new.

“I’m really comfortable,” Smith said. “It’s not something I saw coming. I don’t know that anyone saw Lindsay leaving for the NBA. But it feels good to back and it feels right.”

Smith said she will bring a combination of her experiences as a collegiate player and a coach at the college and pro levels to her own head coaching style.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to work for and learn from a number of phenomenal coaches,” Smith said. “I think I’ve taken something from each of them and I can see it come out of myself in different moments. I think it will be a blend of everything in my past.”

VanDerveer said she will always be willing to be a mentor for her former player.

“Being a head coach for the first time at Cal is very intimidating,” VanDerveer said. “She’s right in that spotlight. She loves basketball, she’s very intelligent and hardworking and I know she will do a great job.”

Smith played in three Finals Fours at Stanford. She won three Pac-12 titles.

“I’m not asking (the players) to do anything that I’m not willing to do,” Smith said. “I think my experience playing the WNBA, playing at Stanford and going to Final Fours. I hope they trusted in me because I’ve done it as a player. I want them to be able to hear me say ‘This is the way’, and not just because I think so, but because I’ve actually experienced it.”

Senior C.J. West concurred.

“I think it’s the main reason why our relationship with Charmin is so strong. Because she understands,” West said. “She’s been through every step we’ve taken so far.”

She is coaching a new team, moving on from the loss of Kristine Anigwe, Asha Thomas and Recee’ Caldwell.

“Everyone in this program is in a new role,” Smith said. “For me as a first-time head coach, to every single player who's trying to do something really that they haven't done before. And what I think comes with that is an excitement, because now it's your turn, and it's your opportunity. And I think when people feel like they have opportunity, they're more willing to work. So we have a group that's just fired up because who's taking Kristine's minutes, who's taking AT's minutes, who's taking Recee's minutes. There's a lot of opportunity out there, and I will tell you we have people that are very capable.”

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, San Francisco Chronicle, The Athletic and AOL Fanhouse. She was has won several awards, including 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. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.

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