It may be December but Tuesday night’s showdown between No. 7 Oregon and No. 4 Mississippi State had the feeling of a game taking place in late March or early April.
Led by all-American Sabrina Ionescu and her backcourt running mate Maite Cazorla, the Ducks came from behind to defeat the Bulldogs 82-74 in front of a raucous Matthew Knight Arena crowd.
“That’s a great win for us,” Oregon (9-1) head coach Kelly Graves said. “Mississippi State is a great program, coach (Vic) Shaefer is an amazing coach — they don’t make anything easy, ever.”
Ionescu finished with 29 points, including a 17-for-17 showing from the free throw line, six rebounds and five assists.
“I feel fine because we won,” Ionescu said about her 5-for-18 shooting performance. “I was getting good looks and I wasn’t hitting them, so I knew I had to find another way to score.”
Cazorla got the Ducks off to a quick start by relentlessly attacking the basket, ultimately finishing with 20 points and five assists.
“I thought Maite set the tone early,” Graves said. “She did such a great job of attacking the basket early in the game… I thought that was key.”
The dynamic duo combined to draw 14 fouls on the Bulldogs (10-1), continuously attacking the basket despite Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan awaiting them.
McCowan, the Bulldogs’ 6-foot-7 all-American center, was limited to five points due to the play of Ruthy Hebard. Hebard was stellar for the Ducks all night despite giving up four inches to the bigger McCowan. Not letting her establish position in the post, Hebard forced McCowan outside of the key multiple, even drawing two offensive fouls in the process.
“Absolutely incredible — I can’t even put into words how much she’s been practicing mentally and physically to take down a great post player like that,” Ionescu said of Hebard’s play against McCowan.
“It was mainly Ruthy tonight,” Graves said about how they held McCowan in check. “She just kept her outside of that painted area — if you can do that, you’ve got a chance — she (Hebard) was a warrior tonight, she really was.”
The Ducks had to fight back in the second half when Mississippi State’s Anriel Howard (game-high 30 points) sunk an and-one, giving the Bulldogs a 51-44 lead, their largest of the game.
But playing like the veteran group they are, Ionescu calmly sunk a three-pointer on the next possession as the Ducks finished the quarter on a 13-4 run for the two-point leading entering the final frame.
Oregon increased its lead to eight with 6:12 remaining when Ionescu knocked won two free throws. With the deficit, Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer pulled the largely ineffective McCowan from the game. With McCowan gone, the lanes opened up and Ionescu and Cazorla had no issue getting to the foul line, finishing a combined 15-for-15 from the charity stripe in the quarter.
“I loved our composure, certainly down the stretch — I loved our ability to have the ball in these two’s hands (Ionescu and Cazorla) late and know that if they get fouled, it’s as good as two points,” Graves said.
Freshman Taylor Chavez had her best game as a Duck, playing 29 minutes and finishing with seven points, two rebounds and one assist. While her stat line might not look extremely impressive, she proved that she wasn’t too big for the moment, playing the entire fourth quarter and posting a team-high +13 on the night.
“We all believe in Taylor and for a freshman to do what she did tonight on that kind of stage was incredible,” Graves said.
Mississippi State entered the game as one of the best offensive and rebounding teams in the nation, but the smaller Ducks were able to hold the Bulldogs off the boards, finishing with a 27-25 advantage. While a lot of the credit goes to Hebard and her job on McCowan, the guards also did well on the boards, collecting one-third of the total rebounds.
“We’ve questioned our toughness from time to time and they (Ducks) passed tonight,” Graves said. “This was a tough, gutty win… tonight I thought we were the tougher team.”
Oregon won’t have long to enjoy the victory as the Ducks return to action on Thursday for a midday game against Air Force. Tipoff is set for 11 a.m. from Matthew Knight Arena.