TAMPA, Fla. — It’s been a whirlwind couple days for the Oregon women’s basketball team.
The Ducks won their Elite Eight game in Portland on Sunday, traveled back to Eugene that night and on Tuesday flew to Florida. They’ve had a luau, a firework show and were given some swag from Nike.
“I've been watching these for a long time,” Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said. “Until you're actually here, you don't know what the experience is really like.”
Oregon hasn’t had a chance to sit back and take in what it has accomplished. A first-ever Final Four berth clinched by an Elite Eight win in front of more than 11,000 fans at Portland’s Moda Center will certainly be moments these players will reflect on for the rest of their lives.
Just like his players, Graves is a newbie on this stage. He got advice from Oregon men’s head coach and 2017 Final Four participant Dana Altman.
“Have a great time, enjoy it, especially for your first time,” Graves said of Altman’s advice. “We hope to be back. But there's never an assurance of that. That was, not underlined, overwhelming theme perhaps. … Be yourselves. Don't put in that special play, that new defense, just do what's gotten you there.”
Oregon forward Lydia Giomi, who played a pivotal role in stopping Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan in Oregon’s Elite Eight win, said the Final Four atmosphere set in for her when the team had its luau. But for Morgan Yaeger, it hit when she was putting up shots in practice on Thursday morning.
“Seeing the arena today, it’s starting to sink in now,” Yaeger said. “It’s getting close, it’s really exciting.”
Senior Maite Cazorla will have a special Final Four. Not just because she’ll play her last collegiate game on the biggest stage, but because her family from Spain will make it out to Tampa to watch the game in person, meaning they will all be together for the first time in five years.
“I’m just excited,” Cazorla said. “It’s going to be great, it’s going to be awesome that we’re all going to be together and I’m looking forward to it.”
Cazorla said that she’s been hesitant to try out her Nike React sneakers that she and the Ducks got from Nike when they arrived in Tampa.
Part of that Nike swag included special hoodies the team received on Thursday morning that read, “Et Les Femmes?” meaning “And women?” in French.
"This is something Nike has preached to us, talked a lot to us about,” freshman Taylor Chavez said. “They've been really interactive with us and trying to make equality really obvious between us and the men's teams so something like this puts it into words. We're wearing it on our chests."
There’s no frenzy like the Final Four. There are banners littered across buildings in downtown Tampa Bay, and Amalie Arena has seen a transformation from the Tampa Bay Lightning’s hockey rink to the biggest stage in collegiate women’s basketball.
“We’re calling dibs on everything in the locker room, the rugs — everything. So, we’re still obviously enjoying being here and being part of the Final Four,” Ionescu said. “But I don’t really think it’ll sink in until I’m done playing in it.”
But the off-court distractions haven’t affected the underdog Ducks who are still focused on the task at hand.
“I don’t think [Graves is] feeling a lot of the pressure, I don’t think any of us are,” Ionescu said. “Everyone’s in here laughing, having a good time. We’re honored, humbled to be here. But I think we all know we don’t want to go home tomorrow. We didn’t just come here to enjoy the experience, we came here to win two more basketball games.”
Follow Shawn Medow on Twitter @ShawnMedow