With Pac-12 sweep in hand, it’s full steam ahead for Oregon and Ionescu

    Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

LAS VEGAS — Oregon isn’t the defending NCAA champion (that’s Baylor) and isn’t ranked No. 1 (that’s South Carolina.) Yet it feels like the target has been on the Ducks’ backs all season — and they don’t seem to mind.

After losing to Baylor in the 2019 national semifinals — and not long after getting the news that guard Sabrina Ionescu would return for her senior year — Oregon knew this season it would have one overriding goal: Win an NCAA title. And while the Ducks stumbled twice in the regular season, they’ve looked pretty phenomenal the past two months on the road to New Orleans.

Even after a little bit of a slow start against Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament final Sunday — Oregon trailed by three points at the end of the first quarter — we saw just how fast the Ducks could hit the accelerator and take off. In winning 89-56, they secured their second league tournament title and won their 19th game in a row. One minute, it was a close game — the next it was a big party for the many fans in green and yellow who filled the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

And what makes the Ducks even scarier is that they didn’t need much from one of their so-called “Big Three,” because they have scoring depth all over the floor. Forward Satou Sabally was limited to seven points on 3-for-11 shooting, yet it didn’t matter. Guard Minyon Moore, a graduate transfer from USC, had a season-high 21 points — she was 4 of 5 from 3-point range after making just four treys total over the previous 15 games — and seniors Ionescu (20 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds) and Ruthy Hebard (24 points, seven rebounds) were their usual big-time selves. Hebard was named to the all-tournament team, and Ionescu was the tournament’s most valuable player. Ionescu became the fifth player in league history to be named to the Pac-12 all-tournament team all four seasons.

“We’re trying to get better every single game,” Ionescu said, and they seem to be doing that.

Up by 38 with 3:37 left, Oregon coach Kelly Graves finally pulled all his starters. The game was long over by then, and Oregon forcefully had made its point: The Ducks are going full-speed ahead to the NCAA tournament, where they are expected to be the No. 1 seed in the Portland Regional.

Earlier Sunday, two of the other teams projected to be NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds also looked good in winning their league tournaments. South Carolina took the SEC title over Mississippi State by 14 points, and Maryland claimed the Big Ten crown, beating Ohio State by 17. However, the other team expected to get a top seed, Baylor, was upset in its regular-season finale at Iowa State, 57-56.

While the Ducks, Gamecocks and Terrapins practice and rest this next week, the Lady Bears will be going for their ninth Big 12 tournament title in the past 10 years. But the debate among women’s hoops fans will be this: Are the Ducks and Gamecocks destined to meet in New Orleans in April for the national championship? And if so, who’s the favorite?

Oregon made its case throughout a challenging Pac-12 season — the Ducks’ lone league loss came Jan. 10 at Arizona State — and with a dominating nonconference victory at UConn on Feb. 3. The Ducks have continued to rise to every challenge since, often making good opponents look not especially challenging because the Ducks are so efficient and driven.

“We’re on a mission,” Graves said heading into the final. “We want to continue to build the resume as well. Right now we’re 9-1 against teams that were in the last top 16 reveal.”

Make that 10-1 now after beating Stanford, which hung with the Ducks for a quarter and then got swept away by the Oregon tidal wave. The Cardinal went 0-3 against Oregon this season.

The Ducks were plucky underdogs back in 2017, when Ionescu and Hebard were freshmen, and they rode three consecutive upsets as a No. 10 seed to make the Elite Eight. In 2018, they won their first Pac-12 tournament title and went to the Elite Eight again, but fell to eventual national champion Notre Dame.

Last year, Hebard dealt with an injury late in the season, and the Ducks fell to Stanford in the Pac-12 final. But Oregon was the “home” team for the Portland Regional as the No. 2 seed, and beat top-seeded Mississippi State in the final to advance to the Final Four for the first time.

A 72-67 loss to Baylor in the national semifinals stung, but it was also the start of a new journey for a program that has helped change the landscape of the Pac-12. What was once Stanford and everybody else has transformed into what many feel is the most exciting league in the country.

And Oregon is the most exciting team of the league. Can the Ducks finish what they fell short on last season? At this point, it’s going to take a lot to stop them.

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