First True Taste Of March Madness
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As a freshman, Nyara Sabally travelled to the Final Four with the Oregon women's basketball team. A knee injury prevented her from playing, though.
That was in 2019, and the following year's NCAA Tournament was cancelled due to the pandemic. A year ago Sabally and the Ducks made the Sweet Sixteen, participating under strict pandemic protocols that prevented most fans from attending in San Antonio.
Finally, on Saturday, Sabally will get to play in an NCAA Tournament game with fans packing the stands. The Ducks open this year's tournament as the No. 5 seed in the Wichita Region, facing No. 12 seed Belmont at 2:30 p.m. PT on ESPN2, in a first-round matchup hosted by Tennessee.
"I'm super excited," Sabally said Friday during a press conference at Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena, after which the Ducks held a practice. "This is crazy to think about, but this is my fourth year in college, but it's the first time I get to play in a real postseason."
Sedona Prince is in the same situation — a fourth-year collegian playing her first "normal" NCAA Tournament. Prince was at Texas as a freshman in 2019, and like Sabally made her March Madness debut in the San Antonio bubble last spring.
"We're excited," Prince said Friday. "We're going to make memories all we can. Have a lot of fun, not take any moment for granted. We're excited to see where it takes us."
The Ducks made the Sweet Sixteen in 2021, making it to the second weekend of the tournament for the fourth time in a row. They did so without the services of this season's third-leading scorer, Te-Hina Paopao, who was injured late last spring.
Prince, Sabally and Maddie Scherr started that Sweet Sixteen game for Oregon, and Sydney Parrish and Kylee Watson appeared off the bench. They were the only participants in that game who are contributing for the 2021-22 Ducks, who have been bolstered by additions including Endyia Rogers and Ahlise Hurst, not to mention a healthy Paopao.
"We're a really young team in terms of experience," head coach Kelly Graves said. "So I'm really interested to see how we do (Saturday), and how we react to a hostile environment."
Graves is expecting Saturday's first-round matchup with Belmont to feel like a road game, given that the Bruins are from Nashville, a three-hour drive from Knoxville.
"My guess is everyone in (Tennessee) orange will also be rooting for the Bruins," Graves said. "So it's going to be a true road environment. I think we're OK with that. We're just going to make the most of it and play."
Belmont is making its seventh NCAA Tournament appearance as champions of the Ohio Valley Conference. The Bruins enter the Big Dance with a 22-7 record, having gone 1-4 against Power 5 competition. Belmont also was a No. 12 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, and upset No. 5 Gonzaga in the first round.
The Bruins collect more than one-third of their points from behind the three-point line, a concern for the Ducks after Utah's three-point shooting caused problems in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals. But Graves sees a well-rounded opponent on film.
"They don't have a weakness that I can find right now," he said. "They're just really solid at both ends of the floor."
Oregon's staff is short-handed in Tennessee this weekend, after assistant coach Jackie Nared Hairston stayed back in Eugene while anticipating the birth of a child.
Former UO player Oti Gildon, now the program's director of creativity and student-athlete support, will serve as an assistant in Nared Hairston's absence. Graves said prior to leaving Eugene that Nared Hairston would remain an asset in pregame preparations, providing input virtually.
On the player personnel front, Graves said the Ducks aren't completely healthy but that everyone should be available for Saturday's game. That includes Scherr, who continues to recover from a lower leg injury.
Following their practice Friday, the Ducks scheduled a visit to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, which is located in Knoxville.
Friday's practice was conducted in the shadow of banners hanging from the Thompson-Boling Arena rafters noting the eight national championships won by Tennessee's women. All of those were won under legendary coach Pat Summitt.
"I'm not sure these guys quite understand it — we've tried to talk about it — but personally I'm really thrilled to be here in Knoxville," Graves said. "Because this is really the epicenter of women's basketball, and has been for a long time."
Tennessee's last national title was in 2008, but the Lady Vols have maintained their streak of appearing in every NCAA Tournament since its inception. Tennessee hosts Buffalo in Saturday's first round, prior to the Oregon-Belmont matchup.
"It truly is inspiring to us and our young teammates as well, to learn about Pat Summitt and what did for women's basketball as a whole sport, and for athletes," Prince said. "It's inspiring for us, very educational."
Prince has become known for her advocacy on behalf of female athletes as well, most notably after going viral online last year for pointing out inequalities in NCAA Tournament amenities between the men's and women's events.
The NCAA took steps to close that gap for this year's women's tournament. But when asked about that issue Friday, Prince looked to shift the focus.
"It's about basketball now, and that's what I want it to be about," she said. "I want the world to watch our team and not associate it with that; associate us with how great we are on the court."
Sabally participated in Oregon's Senior Day ceremony following the Ducks' final home game, though she still has the option of returning with the Ducks for another season.
She said Friday she has yet to finalize a decision on whether to return or begin playing professionally.
"I'm really just focused on ending the season right now," Sabally said, "and playing as many games as we get to play."