Michelle Smith WBB Notebook: Oregon heads to Pac-12 Tournament Finals after dominant performance
LAS VEGAS – The Oregon Ducks are simply unwilling to share their Pac-12 title this season. And they aren’t afraid to say it. Or play like it.
A year after coming into the Pac-12 Tournament as the regular-season champions and leaving as disappointed runners-up, the Ducks return to Sunday’s title game looking for atone for that sin after defeating fourth-seeded Arizona 88-70 Saturday night in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament at Mandalay Events Center.
The Ducks (30-2) will be playing for the tournament title for the third straight year and the version of Oregon that showed up Saturday night is the version that scares every team in the country. The one where Sabrina Ionescu is a dominant presence – in this case, 31 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, and another record for her collection as the top individual scorer in Pac-12 Tournament history.
The one where the Ducks bomb away from the 3-point arc from every spot on the floor – Oregon collected 15 3-pointers in this game by five different players.
The one where Oregon dominates you on the boards – the Ducks out-rebounding Arizona 39-22 overall and 14-7 on the offensive boards and outscored them 16-5 in second chance points.
“We had a great shooting night from the three again,” said Ducks coach Kelly Graves. “You know, I thought they had to gamble a little bit, gave up open looks, and we knocked them down tonight.
“This is a good basketball team offensively, we're an elite team, one of the best of all time, quite frankly. So, when we get it rolling and get to that tempo and find shooters and knocking them down, we become really difficult.”
While the Ducks led almost from start to finish, the Wildcats hung within striking distance for much of the game thanks to Aari McDonald’s 34-point effort and 10 3-pointers by the Wildcats, setting the tournament record for most combined 3-pointers in a single game. But Oregon pulled away late and the Wildcats had no more answers.
“Of course, we wanted to win today. We wanted an upset,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes. “We knew we would have to really play, bring our A game. But I'm not disappointed, we were close at times. But a lot of the small mistakes, they don't win games against the top three teams in the country, they win games against the top 20. So it is a learning lesson for us. We see where the bar is set really high. We see where we're going to be in the near future and what it takes to get there.”
Ionescu was, again, the most dominant player on the floor.
“My team came ready to play,” Ionescu said. “When Erin (Boley) shoots how she did, when Taylor (Chavez) shoots it and Jaz (Shelley) shoots it like they have been, it makes my job easy. So they're attracting so much attention that I got open shots, vice versa. I’m really just trying to provide anything I can in order for to us win.”
For McDonald, the Wildcats’ star guard, being on the losing end of a game in which she scored 34 points (and extended her nation’s best streak of games scoring in double figures to 65), was disappointing.
But then there was a really nice consolation prize when the game was over, her boyfriend Devon Brewer, who played football at Arizona, surprised her with a marriage proposal.
“We were walking off the court, and I see my brother gesturing, like, ‘Hey, come here’. He had his phone on. I'm like, what is he doing?,” McDonald said. “And then I see my boyfriend, Devon. I'm like, wait. ‘What?’ I looked at the sign, ‘Will you marry me?’ With all my family there.”
A group of Arizona fans stood up holding letters that read, “Aarion, will you marry me?” The answer was yes. McDonald said it’s the only time she ever remembers being speechless.
“The head coach is always the last to know,” Barnes said with a smile as McDonald showed off her ring.
There is more to be excited about for the Wildcats (24-7), namely a trip to the NCAA Tournament where the Wildcats will likely host and have an opportunity to bring a big home crowd to McKale Center.
Barnes believes her team can improve significantly in the two weeks before the Wildcats play their first NCAA game in 15 years.
“We're going to get better in the next two weeks,” Barnes said. “You'll see a better team in two weeks, and you'll see a team that will be successful in the tournament.
“We have a chance to host now. I'm excited about it. Normally Arizona, our season would be over, it is not over this year. So, you know, we have prepared all season long playing against the best teams in the country, so I feel and I hope they feel too, we're prepared for the tournament.”
The Ducks have defeated Stanford handily twice this season. But they know better than to use that as a barometer for what could happen Sunday. Oregon had beaten Stanford by 40 last season before losing to the Cardinal in the tournament title game.
“We’re on a mission,” Graves said. “We don't want to share the regular season title with someone else that wins the tournament championship. Our resume is solid, but we want to -- you know, that's nice and everything, but we want to cut down the nets. We don't want to share this. We don't want it to be tainted.
“They'll get our best shot, whoever we play tomorrow. And they're both equally impressive. They both offer great challenges to us. But if we play our basketball game, we're the best team. I don't mind saying that. We just are. We proved it over a two-month grind in Pac-12, and now we have three days. We have two of them down, now we have one more.”
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.