For a team that has been to back-to-back Elite Eights, you wouldn’t expect pregame jitters to one as seasoned as Oregon. But with any conference tournament, anything is possible and the Ducks almost found out the hard way.
It may have taken longer than expected but Oregon defeated upstart Arizona 77-63 on Friday afternoon, pulling away in the fourth quarter for the win.
"We’ve played a few like this and done well in those grinder kind of games… this was certainly one of them. We didn’t get it going,” Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said. “But I think sometimes even as a coach, you just didn’t have that feel of a typical Duck game, but in the end, it was a convincing win.”
Despite the close call through three quarters, Oregon outrebounded Arizona 37-20 and shot 53.3-percent from the field, holding the Wildcats to 43.9-percent. The Ducks knocked down three more three-pointers while dishing out eight more assists — proving Graves’ point that this was a convincing win.
Sabrina Ionescu led the Ducks with 18 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds, helping stabilize Oregon’s offense in the fourth quarter when Arizona pulled within seven after three. Although she only scored two points in the quarter, she dished out three assists and never let the Wildcats back into the game following her no-look assist to Oti Gildon to open the frame.
"It might have been those first-game jitters," Ionescu said. "We were super nervous… we're excited to get out there and play.”
Oregon’s depth was tested as backup guard Taylor Chavez is out for the tournament with a foot injury. Combine that with Ruthy Hebard still working back to full health following a bone bruise a month ago and Maite Cazorla battling the flu, the Ducks know the route to repeat as champions is going to be tough.
“Being not a hundred percent definitely sucks,” Hebard said. “But we did a good job of staying together, and we’re going to do that for the rest of the season.”
“We’ll be fine,” Ionescu added. “Maite will come back tomorrow better than she did today, and we’ll have players step up and play Duck basketball.”
It wasn’t as easy as previous meetings with the Wildcats, who knew that a win would strengthen their case as an NCAA tournament while a loss would all but end it. Aari McDonald did everything she could for Arizona, scoring a game-high 34 points while adding five assists and three steals.
“She brought everything. She’s very, very difficult to guard. I don’t know anybody in the country that can guard her one-on-one,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said of McDonald. “She’s special… she’s one of the best guards in the country, and she continues to make noise.”
The Ducks came out quick, leading 7-2 early on — the lead would grow to 19-10 following three consecutive buckets by Ionescu. But early turnovers, six in all, allowed the Wildcats to keep it close through one quarter.
As with most good teams, they end quarters on a positive note, and that’s exactly what Oregon did in the second. After the teams traded baskets for most of the quarter, the Ducks went on an 11-4 run, including a Sabally three-pointer at the buzzer, for the 40-28 lead at the break.
Hebard (21 points and 10 rebounds) got the Ducks going in the third quarter when she scored Oregon’s first six points. But the defense let down to end the quarter, allowing the Wildcats to score 14 points over the final four minutes, let by McDonald’s 10 points.
“I thought we did a better job in the second half of getting her the basketball,” Graves said of Hebard. “Ruthy’s a force, there is no question about it. When she’s playing at her best, she’s one of the best post players in the country, certainly.”
After being outscored by five in the third quarter, and ending it on a sour note, Graves’ squad regrouped in the fourth when they used an 8-3 run midway through the final quarter to cruise to the win in the end.
Sabally finished with 11 points and seven rebounds while Erin Boley chipped in 13 points — the combined to shoot 4-of-9 from beyond the arc.
The Ducks now turn their attention to UCLA, looking to avenge their only home loss of the season when the Bruins defeated a Hebard-less Ducks 74-69 two weeks ago. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. on Saturday and will air on the Pac-12 Network.
“They’re good… they’re playing so much better now than they did when we played them in January, and they obviously beat us a few weeks ago in Eugene,” Graves said of the Bruins. “We’re a little bit different. Last time we didn’t play them with Ruthy, so we can show them something a little bit different than we did last game.”