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Fighting Ducks Advance To Semifinals

Mar 3, 2022

LAS VEGAS — It was early Thursday morning, and the Oregon women's basketball team was lounging around a room off a hallway at Michelob ULTRA Arena. The Ducks were awaiting their pregame shootaround for a Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal matchup against UCLA later in the day.

One by one, UO head coach Kelly Graves approached his players and offered the same exhortation: "You be ready to get into the fight tonight."

He repeated the mantra to the Ducks in their film session after breakfast: "Get into the fight." For good measure, it was written on a white board in their locker room when the Ducks arrived at the arena Thursday night.

Get into the fight.

The Ducks and Bruins would be meeting in the conference tournament for the third time in five years. In 2018, Oregon won a semifinal by three points. The next year, it took overtime for the Ducks to vanquish UCLA again in the semifinals.

Graves knew Thursday's quarterfinal would be similar: a fight for 40 minutes — if not longer.

It didn't take longer than 40 minutes, as it turned out. But just barely. And the Ducks survived and advanced because they got into the fight, just in the nick of time.

Endyia Rogers hit go-ahead free throws with 1:27 to play and Nyara Sabally hit two more with 3.8 seconds left as Oregon beat the Bruins, 63-60, advancing to a semifinal Friday against Utah (8:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network). The Ducks held UCLA scoreless for the final 4:18 of Thursday's game, getting double-doubles from both Sabally and Sedona Prince, and a combined 25 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists from the guard tandem of Rogers and Te-Hina Paopao.

"In games like this — big games, close games — you've got to rely on your stars," Graves said afterward. "And our stars came through."

The Bruins led 53-50 entering the fourth quarter, before Oregon got baskets from Prince and Sabally and a three-pointer from Paopao to take the lead. With the Ducks up 59-57, they defended a UCLA possession well and were poised to force a shot-clock violation when Bruins post Iimar'i Thomas had the ball squirt out to her at the top of the three-point arc.

Thomas hit a three to beat the shot clock and give UCLA a 60-59 lead. It had the potential to be a deflating turn of events for Oregon. Instead, the Ducks didn't allow another point the rest of the game.

After Rogers put the Ducks back in front, the teams traded empty possessions. UCLA star Charisma Osborne had a chance to make a game-winner with less than 20 seconds left.

Aware the Bruins had been driving and then dishing to posts for weak-side layups, Prince anticipated a similar play and slapped the ball away. She then jumped on the loose ball to secure it for Oregon.

"My defense has been kind of struggling this year, different from last year, so I've been working on it," said Prince, who finished the game with 12 points and 12 rebounds. "Being in those close moments, being able to have Kelly trust me and know I'm going to get a stop — we're gonna get a crucial play to win the game — he gave me that trust that I could get a stop and get the ball back."

After the turnover, Sabally capped a 15-point, 15-rebound performance with her two clutch free throws. Graves had made it clear prior to the game that his twin towers of Prince and Sabally were a strength Oregon needed to exploit Thursday night. They came through.

"It's definitely a lot of pressure, but I trust my teammates and I hope they trust me," Sabally said. "So I'm really just doing it for my teammates, and knowing they're behind me backing me up helps a lot. It gets me going."

The Ducks got going a little late Thursday, trailing 17-16 after the first quarter and 32-31 at halftime. At that point the Bruins had 14 second-chance points. Oregon's posts needed to get into the fight, and they knew it.

"This is it," Sabally told her teammates in the halftime locker room. "We have 20 more minutes. We can either come back out like we just did, and lose the game, or come out playing to win."

Before coaches got to the locker room, UO players made a list on the white board of second-half keys. At the top of the list was two words: "Box out." In the second half, the Bruins had just two more second-chance points.

When the Bruins led 60-59, they rebounded their own miss, then missed again. Sydney Parrish came up with a crucial defensive rebound, denying the potential for more second-chance points and giving the Ducks possession for what ended up being the two go-ahead free throws by Rogers.

From Parrish grabbing that rebound to Prince stripping Osborne moments later, from Maddie Scherr providing tough on-ball defense in the second half while playing hurt to Sabally coming up big all night, the Ducks showed their fight Thursday. It might have taken a while to emerge. But it made all the difference down the stretch.