“I don’t like losing.”
That’s what Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu told the nation after the Ducks defeated No. 1 Mississippi State 88-84 on Sunday afternoon to win the Portland Regional and head to the Final Four, a first in program history.
"Really proud, though, of our poise and our confidence and how we played down the stretch," Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said. "You look at the numbers, only eight turnovers against that kind of pressure. Our shooting percentage was high... I can't believe we actually out-rebounded them. The Ducks really earned this."
Ionescu might’ve staked her claimed as the best player in the country, finishing with 31 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in the win. Her three-pointer with 1:02 left proved to be the biggest shot of her career when she stopped on a dime, launching a shot that will be forever revered seen in Oregon highlights.
With the game tied at 59 entering the fourth quarter, Ionescu came alive when the Ducks needed her most, totaling 14 points and two assists in the final 10 minutes. Of Oregon’s final 12 points, Ionescu either scored or assisted on 10 of them.
She finished as the regional’s Most Outstanding Player, being joined by teammates Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard on the all-tournament team. Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan and Anriel Howard were also named to the team.
“I'm disappointed in myself that it didn't happen for us. I'll go back, I'll watch the film, and I'll get better… I’ll learn,” Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer said. “But these kids, they did everything they could do. I mean, I couldn't be prouder of them. They fought their guts out today in a really difficult arena against a really good team.”
Sabally was equally as impressive, finishing 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks.
" I was just trying to be more focused," Sabally said. " I was just really concentrating on focusing on my controllables, getting those rebounds, trying to help Ruthy on Teaira, boxing out Howard. Just knowing that everything is, like, unpressured, I tried to take pressure off me."
For 39 minutes, the game felt like two heavyweight boxers going at it as the Ducks and Bulldogs traded blow after blow, each refusing to yield.
The fourth quarter proved to be dynamic as the teams combined for 54 points on 39 shot attempts.
After Oregon jumped out to a five-point lead, Howard responded for Mississippi State with four points. From there, both teams traded three-pointers and three-point plays over the next four possessions. But the Ducks finally found some breathing room when Sabally and Ionescu scored back-to-back buckets, taking advantage of the pick-and-roll to lead 74-69 with 4:06 to go.
The Bulldogs cut the deficit to 78-75 with 2:23 to go following two free throws by McCowan, and gained the momentum back after a charge by Sabally neglected a Boley three-pointer. But Oregon’s defense held strong as Hebard recorded back-to-back blocks and a rebound before being fouled.
That set the stage for Ionescu, who dribbled out the ball for 25 seconds before launching a three-pointer from the top of the key. The ball found nothing but net and gave the Ducks a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“She's a great player. We did all we could,” Bulldogs guard Jazmunn Holmes said of Ionescu. “I mean, she's good, so... hats off to her.”
Mississippi State refused to go away as it got a quick bucket to the cut the deficit to four. But it was Ionescu time again, this time drawing a double team and finding an open Maite Cazorla, who calmly buried the three-pointer and sent the Moda Center into a frenzy.
"Maite is an unheralded superstar," Graves said. "She's fine with kind of being in the background. But she is certainly a capable basketball player. I think she showed it all tonight."
Free throws by Boley and Ionescu iced the game as confetti rained down from the rafters, setting off a celebration that the Ducks have been waiting for since they reached the Elite Eight three years ago.
"I just thought we wanted to elevate West Coast basketball, Pac-12 basketball, for a long time," Graves said. "I was looking at it from a distance in the WCC, Stanford and everybody else. The everybody else were good, but they weren't at that level."
After a quiet first half in which she was held in check to four points and no rebounds, Hebard responded in a big way over the final 20 minutes. Not only did she control the paint with 10 points and five rebounds, she outplayed McCowan, Mississippi State’s 6-foot-7 all-American.
"Yeah, I think we just kept it up. We knew what we needed to do to defend her, being physical, pushing her out," Hebard said of defending McCowan. "We had great guards around us getting rebounding, tipped balls."
McCowan finished with 19 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks, but did most of her damage in the first half. She never found a rhythm in the second half because Hebard was able to defend her one-on-one in the fourth, allowing the Oregon defense to switch everything up top and outscore the Bulldogs 20-16 in the paint over the final 20 minutes.
The Bulldogs jumped out a 21-19 lead after one as Howard and McCowan combined for 14 points and six rebounds. But the Ducks responded by finding their outside shoot, sinking 8-of-15 from beyond the arc to take a 40-38 lead into the break.
When Oregon went cold from three-point territory in the third quarter (0-for-4), Howard and Jordan Danberry found their offense to lead Mississippi State back into the game.
Howard finished with 18 points and six rebounds while Holmes added 15 points and 13 assists. Andra Espinoza-Hunter (4-of-7 from deep) and Danberry each finished with 12 points.
“A loss is a loss, you know. It doesn't feel good,” McCowan said. “But I'm proud of my team, my coaching staff we got this far. We had a great season. Nothing to hang our heads on. Yeah, it hurts, but we'll be okay.”
Both teams put on a clinic shooting the ball, with Oregon finishing 32-of-59 (54.2-percent) from the floor and Mississippi State shooting 31-for-64 (48.4-percent). But it was the Ducks’ three-prowess that proved to be the difference, knocking down 13-of-26 (Ionescu was 5-for-8) while the Bulldogs were held to 8-for-14.
Oregon now travels to Tampa, Florida for the Final Four — which begins Friday, April 5.