Michelle Smith WBB Feature: Ducks earn celebration with impressive performance in Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS - In what ended up as an exercise in the inevitable – not to mention an impressive exhibition of elite-level basketball, the Oregon Ducks earned their celebration at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Sunday evening.
The Ducks cut down the nets after a dominant run through the Pac-12 season with an 89-56 win over third-seeded Stanford, atoning for last year’s title loss to the Cardinal in front of a pro-Ducks crowd of 6,794, the second-most ever to see a Pac-12 title game.
Oregon (31-2) made no bones about the fact that they did not want that to happen again, and in fact, that they were simply not willing to allow it. Its 33-point margin of victory was the largest ever in a championship game. And their 56.4 percent shooting from the floor was also a tournament record.
After an initial struggle to find their offensive rhythm, the Ducks exploded for 29 points in the second quarter for a 43-26 halftime lead that would set a tone for the rest of the evening.
“Stanford has set a high bar for this conference for many years,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves. “Tonight, they just met a better team. We played great…we validated a very hard-fought two-month grind, Pac-12 regular season championship with a tournament championship. We don’t have to share it with anybody.”
The Ducks are lined up for a No. 1 seed in the Portland region in their quest to return to the NCAA Women’s Final Four and leave New Orleans with a national championship.
And they look like a team with a championship makeup, with talent, experience, motivation and the country’s most shining star in Sabrina Ionescu, who continued her stellar performances against Stanford with another one on Sunday with 20 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds. She was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player for the second time in three years.
Ionescu was scoreless in the first quarter, and put up eight-straight points to propel the Ducks into the second quarter lead that would not relinquish.
Senior forward Ruthy Hebard finished with 24 points and seven rebounds in 29 minutes.
It was graduate transfer Minyon Moore who also helped to spark the Ducks’ offense in the second quarter. Moore, who played her previous season at USC, finished the game with a season-high 21 points, including four 3-pointers. Moore was doing snow-angels in the confetti after her first tournament title as a player.
“This means everything,” Moore said. “By this time, I’m usually at home with my feet kicked back watching (games) on TV. To be a part of it now, to be a part of a program who is not only all about basketball but about family and pushing you to be a better person off the court and on the court, is everything.”
Stanford (27-6), who made its 17th appearance in the tournament title game, is anticipated to be a No. 2 seed and a host seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Oregon came into the game with two regular-season wins over Stanford by a combined margin of 50 points. And the Ducks again wanted to prove they are playing at a different level.
Oregon forced 12 turnovers and took advantage, outscoring Stanford 14-0 off turnovers.
The Cardinal, led by Kiana Williams’ 21 points, struggled to get scoring elsewhere for much of the game. Freshman Ashten Prechtel closed the game with 14 points. Stanford was 6-of-26 from beyond the 3-point arc and made just 19 field-goals in the game.
The third-straight loss to Oregon in the same season marks the first time ever that Tara VanDerveer has lost to a Pac-12 opponent three times in the same season. Two of Stanford’s three lowest-scoring games this year have come against the Ducks.
Ionescu lauded her team’s defensive effort, a year in the making, and it paid off big.
“We have relied on our offense a lot in games when we were not shooting the ball particularly well, when we maybe have gotten in foul trouble, we haven't been able to rely on our defense, and I think last year we realized that we fell short due to the fact that we needed to defend better,” Ionescu said. “This year, our whole focus coming into this year was defense, and obviously it starts individually and then it joins in collectively. I think, you know, from us, that play and start to the bench, we all are focusing on our defense and trying to be the best we can because you can impact the game regardless if you're making a shot or not.”
VanDerveer was always clear that this would be a huge talent for her young team, which is relying heavily on sophomores and freshmen.
“I don't know that any game that we would play in the NCAA Tournament would be any harder,” VanDerveer said. “That's a real credit to Oregon and the great team that they have this year.”
Stanford senior Kiana Williams said her takeaway is about team chemistry, a lesson she will look to apply a little less than two weeks from now in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think for our team, one thing to take away is just learning to stick together. That starts with me,” Williams said.
“I'm just proud of our team for, you know, keep fighting until the final horn. So stick with things. It didn't go our way tonight, but no one gave up.”
This experience, VanDerveer said, will be valuable preparation for NCAA Tournament play. Her team ran a gauntlet in this tournament, playing three-straight top-15 ranked teams in three days and going 2-1 in those games.
“Our team is disappointed we didn't compete and do better. But we know that this is what I call the dress rehearsal,” VanDerveer said. “I think this can give our team a really good taste of what's it going to be in the tournament, this is the sense of urgency and how hard you have to play. To beat Oregon State and to beat UCLA and to be sitting here, I'm really proud of our team. But at the same time, we're disappointed we didn't do better. We can use this two weeks and get better. I'm very excited to have such a young group to say, hey, this is what it is going to look like, what it really looks like at the top.”
Notes: The four-day total of 34,138 made this the second largest collective crowd to watch the Pac-12 Tournament.
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.