TAMPA, Fla. — When junior Sabrina Ionescu realized the game was over, she hid her face in her jersey, pulling it up to cover the tears that were surely begging to fall. After a missed Oregon 3-pointer, Erin Boley had just fouled Baylor’s Kalani Brown with three seconds left. Both teams headed to the free throw line. The game was over.
By the time Ionescu arrived in the press room, she was composed, jaw-locked and eyes set, but the tell-tale signs of tears were showing in the redness around her swollen eyes. Boley wouldn’t meet the eyes of media asking her questions.
In Oregon’s 72-67 loss in the national semifinal, it was Baylor’s post game versus Oregon’s 3-point shooting, resulting in the end of the Ducks’ historic season.
From the perimeter, Oregon’s 12 made 3-pointers tied the national semifinal record, and with all four of Oregon’s guards getting in on the action, the Ducks outscored Baylor 36-0 from the 3-point line.
But behind a near Ruthy Hebard shutdown by Baylor’s posts, Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox, the Ducks' 3-game came up just short of a national championship appearance.
Hebard, usually Oregon’s biggest offensive threat in the paint, was outmatched by not one but two All-American posts, scoring just four points, off four attempted shots.
“Unfortunately for us, we couldn't get Ruthy involved as much as we wanted to. That hurt us,” head coach Kelly Graves said. “I just thought we shot a few too many [3-pointers], a couple not so good ones.”
Ultimately, Oregon fell apart down the stretch, missing 12 of its last 13 attempted shots, including a missed pull-up jumper from Sabally with 30 seconds on the clock and the team down just two points. The sophomore had an open 3-point shot, hesitated on the release and dribbled in for the mid-range pull-up jumper and missed.
Despite scoreless first and fourth quarters, Ionescu led the Ducks with 18 points, 12 in the second quarter alone, but just 6-of-24 from the field. Sabally shot 42.8 percent from the 3-point line for 16 points. Boley showed up big for Oregon with 14 points, with 12 beyond the arc.
“I thought Erin Boley hurt us,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said. “I thought she really hit some shots. They would set some flair screens for her, and we would be ball watching. That's a very good basketball team. They're very difficult to defend.”
Across the stat line, the Lady Bears and Ducks were evenly matched. Behind 12 ties and 12 lead changes, Baylor outrebounded Oregon by just five boards and out-assisted the Ducks by just four. Each team committed 13 turnovers, and Oregon had seven steals to Baylor’s five.
But, Cox and Brown dominated down low on both ends of the floor, scoring 43 of Baylor's 48 points in the paint and holding the Ducks to just 20.
“They have two of the best post players, obviously very tall, very athletic,” Ionescu said. “They were beasts inside. But we had to adjust and we didn't.”
Baylor and Oregon tugged back-and-forth for the whole 40 minutes in parity Ducks’ fans may have grown familiar with after the Ducks’ Elite Eight game against Mississippi State. With 3:48 left on the clock, Baylor took its final lead and went on a 9-3 run for the remainder of the game to claim the five-point Final Four victory.
The Ducks held Baylor, which was averaging a 38-point margin of victory in the tournament, to just a five-point victory in the Ducks’ historic, first-ever Final Four.
“We're going to look back on this as a tremendous season and another step. It always hurts. It does and it should. But this was a tremendous season,” Graves said. “I think what we've done for basketball in the state of Oregon is incredible.”
Follow Sierra Webster on Twitter @WebsterSierraE