The ripple effects of Oregon’s run through the women’s NCAA Tournament last season are still being felt, especially as the 2017-18 campaign comes to life and people reflect on what got hearts pumping last March.
Ducks head coach Kelly Graves knows all about shocking developments, and not just from his team’s run last year from inconsistent Pac-12 program to a dynamic, ecstatic squad that reached the Elite Eight. It dates back to his first year at Oregon, 2014-15, when he left Gonzaga and took over the helm from Paul Westhead … the same Paul Westhead who brought a mad-scientist touch to basketball where points reigned supreme and rained on opponents’ heads.
“It was unique, no doubt about it. The year before I got here we finished dead last in the nation, 349th of 349 teams, in defense giving up about 90 a game,” said Graves, whose team will compete in the Preseason WNIT, beginning with a Nov. 10 game against CSUN. "They did score, and I’m an offensive coach by and large … our Gonzaga teams had scored a lot over the years, but we had hung our hat on really good defense. For one, it was a challenge to get them to buy in and two, there’d never been a focus on defense.
“We were running a shell drill (going over defensive principles), where you talk about where you’re supposed to be one, two, or three passes away, and one of the players laughed and said ‘Coach, what do you mean? No one’s ever passed three times against us.’ We were starting literally from scratch. We got better in that area and were able to turn the roster around in two years.”
Oregon is in a far different place today, ranked preseason No. 11 in both the AP and USA Today polls and armed to the teeth with well-rounded players. As a freshman, Sabrina Ionescu backed up the hype of being the nation’s high school player of the year by winning numerous freshman of the year honors, closing with 14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Fellow freshman Ruthy Hebard came through with 14.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per contest, and this youthful roster looked unusually wise and ready in the NCAA Tournament as it burst past seventh-seeded Tempe, No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Maryland to get to the Elite Eight.
It’s difficult to balance that with the shape of Oregon’s fortunes after the regular season, where the Ducks dropped three straight games and were not at all assured of getting a berth in the NCAA’s. But victories against Arizona and Washington (in Seattle) provided a total reset of mood and expectations.
“The Pac-12 Tournament was a new beginning. Like any other situation, whether you are first or last in your league, you get a reset there,” Graves said. “We were clearly on the bubble and felt we needed at least one win; I thought we played fairly well that last weekend (or the regular season) and just got beat.
“We were playing decent basketball, and we had to come from behind both times (in the Pac-12 tourney). That Washington win was critical, coming against a Top 10 team and beating them on their home floor, in essence, and we get a huge lift in terms of tournament resume and confidence going into the NCAAs.”
“The big thing about our team was the chemistry and us believing in each other,” said Hebard, a 6-foot-4 forward from Fairbanks, AK. “In the locker room, we said we needed to focus on the next game and focus on what we’ve been doing wrong, and get in good practices and extra work. That went a long way … all the coaches believed in us and didn’t get down on us. We just wanted to keep playing hard, knowing we wanted to make a run.”
One of the subtle accomplishments within Oregon’s 2016-17 run had to do with players and coaches staying patient as they figure out how to manage roles and minutes on the floor. With six freshmen and three sophomores on the scene, there had to be days where being a good teammate while also establishing their own identity didn’t come easily.
“The thing with our group, and it was displayed throughout the tournament run, was that we just had great chemistry. They liked each other; we realized we were young and played that up,” Graves said. “The players eventually bought into (their roles); we just wanted to get better each day and didn’t look big picture. They all had a little niche they did well that helped the team. Everybody contributed – we went deep (playing nearly the entire roster) because we were trying to figure things out, and then got hot at the end of the year.”
“For me, coming in and finding out how good I can be and what my role was, could be hard. Sabrina and Maite (Cazorla) were definitely leaders, and Coach told us our roles,” Hebard said. “Us focusing on what we were good at helped us make the run. I’m happy with where we are at now; I‘m hoping we can stay positive because these will be tough games, and we need confidence in each other and ourselves. Shoot, don’t pass up shots … and go out and have fun. We’re at our best when we have fun competing.”
Senior guard Lexi Bando will again be a focal point, coming off a year where she shot 47 percent from 3-point range and played 30 minutes a game; Cazorla is a steady hand in the backcourt, and no one will be surprised if Ionescu closes this season as one of the 10 most daunting talents in the college game. And of course, last year’s pulse-pounding finish has Graves very curious about how the next act will play out.
“We want to get pushed early, and I think we will. (CSUN) has a solid post player and a tournament history, and if we get to play Drake next (in the WNIT), they were picked to win their league and is an NCAA team,” he added. “We might get a chance to be tested on the road at a Top 25 school (deep in the WNIT); by the time the Oklahoma game rolls around (Nov. 25), we’ll have already been pushed. I’m looking forward to seeing how team has improved over summer and fall. We finished so strong, and they’ve worked so hard in offseason … they seem to want more. If we can make some huge strides, I think we have a chance to be pretty good.”