If it wasn’t already known, in a span of back-to-back games beginning two weeks ago Oregon announced itself to the country as a true national championship contender.
Initially, the Ducks went into Maples Pavilion and for the first time in 27 years, defeated the No. 11 Cardinal in wowing fashion, 88-48. While the win alone was impressive, it was the manner in which Oregon went about its business against a legitimate Final Four contender, outshooting, outhustling and battering Stanford the entire game.
Five days later and in front of a sold-out Matthew Knight Arena, Oregon defeated No. 9 and arch-rival Oregon State, 77-68.
Following the wins, the Ducks found themselves sitting at 13-0 in the Pac-12 (3.0 games ahead), the nation’s toughest conference, and the No. 2 national ranking. It appeared Oregon was on its way to the finest and most dominating season in Pac-12 history.
Then disaster struck.
Ruthy Hebard, the reigning national power forward of the year, went down with what looked like a serious knee injury early in the second quarter of the rematch with Oregon State three days later. The Ducks went on to lose that game (67-62), but the focus was on Hebard and her knee.
Oregon got good news when it was discovered that Hebard suffered no ligament damage and would instead be out with a “bone bruise,” — dodging a bullet with the good news, the Ducks turned their focus towards upset-minded UCLA.
After jumping out to a 22-point lead late in the second quarter, Oregon was outscored 54-27 the rest of the way in its 74-69 loss to the Bruins Friday night, its first defeat at home this season.
Now the Ducks find themselves with a one-game lead in the Pac-12, and more questions than answers as the season winds down.
“I don’t think we’re hitting the panic button yet, but I don’t know. We haven’t been here before… but we’ve got a veteran team,” Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said. “We’re still 24-3 and in good position — we’ve just hit a little bit of a rough patch and hopefully we’ll work our way out if it… I don’t know.”
Hebard’s injury is of serious concern for a team that is very limited in its depth — only seven players average more than 10 minutes per game. Without the 6-foot-4 post, Oregon is left with no offensive presence in the paint, as evidenced against UCLA.
When teams switch against Oregon’s pick-and-roll offense, Hebard is the anomaly, often getting a smaller player defending her who she abuses down low. Because of her ability to score in the post, opponents are afraid to offer help-side defense, leading to open driving lanes and three-pointers for the Ducks.
Against UCLA, the lack of an inside presence allowed the Bruins to come from behind for the win. UCLA was athletic enough to stay in front of Oregon’s guards and was never forced to defend the “roll” player in the pick-and-roll, the staple of the Ducks’ offense.
“Offensively we've been a mess for a while,” Graves said. “Teams like this who switch, those are the nights you need to have your hammer. If you have Ruthy inside, they have no match for that… we weren’t intimidating inside.”
Oti Gildon, Hebard’s replacement, is a talented role player but that’s it. She’s a better jump shooter than she is finisher through traffic and being undersized, struggled against the bigger and more athletic Bruins.
Satou Sabally and Erin Boley, two players who both stand over 6-foot-2, are perimeter players who can score driving to the hoop, just not with their back to it.
With Hebard out, a lot of pressure falls on Sabally and Sabrina Ionescu, arguably the nation’s best player, but they’ve struggled in the two games without her.
Ionescu is 16-of-40 (40-percent) from the field and 2-for-11 (18-percent) from beyond the arc in the past two games. Sabally is 7-for-24 (29.2-percent) from the floor and 1-for-10 (10-percent) from three-point territory in the same span.
The extent of Hebard’s injury isn’t known to the public, only those within Oregon’s program know whether or not Hebard will return this season, and what type of player they can expect back on the court. Most bone bruises gradually heal over a month or two, and sometimes athletes don’t return for weeks at a time — but my assumption is that she’ll be back before March Madness begins.
Fans better hope so because without Hebard, Oregon's offense looks pedestrian. The Ducks go from the nation's leading scorer (90+ ppg) to a squad that's averaged 65.5 ppg without her — a unit that plays so beautiful and rhythmic to one that's convoluted and centers around isolations.
“We don’t have a lot of players who can beat people off the dribble, we just don’t,” Graves said. “It has to be done through sets, through execution, through great screens and reading screens.”
With only three conference games remaining and hopefully three more in the Pac-12 tournament, Oregon has six games over a three-week span to get ready for the NCAA tournament. It’s no secret the Ducks have their eyes set on the Portland region, allowing them to stay within the state of Oregon if they’re to make it to the Final Four.
“We win the Pac-12 and I think the NCAA is going to want to put us in Portland,” Graves said. “It’s going to be a big deal, but we got finish this thing.”
The Ducks can’t begin looking that far ahead because of instead of playing their best basketball at the end of the season, they’re limping to the end, quite literally. But it’s not time to hit the panic button… yet.