It was a bittersweet moment when four-year starters Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard checked out of the game for the last time, followed by soon-to-be WNBA-draftees Satou Sabally and Minyon Moore. Applause showered down on the quartet as chants of “thank you seniors!” broke out.
Long after Oregon defeated Washington in its final home game of the regular season, the court remained packed. Students, friends, family and coaches swarmed Ducks players, especially the seniors. While the Ducks will likely be back at Matthew Knight in a few weeks on their path to a National Championship, Sunday was a special day.
Before Ionescu finished her career as perhaps the greatest NCAA basketball player of all time; before she and her teammates delivered heartfelt, tear-jerking senior day speeches; before the Ducks won the Pac-12 for the third consecutive year; before back-to-back Elite Eight appearances and last year’s Final Four appearance; before it all, Ionescu and Hebard arrived in Eugene as nothing more than bleary-eyed freshman looking to make their mark on a rising Oregon program.
But Ionescu and Hebard didn’t just make a mark, they fostered a culture. A culture that looks poised to provide the backbone and DNA of dominance for years to come.
Under head coach Paul Westhead, the Ducks won just 26 conference games from 2010-2015, earning an above-.500 record in just one of those.
When Kelly Graves took over in 2015, things began to shift, albeit slowly.
They won just 13 games in his first year. The following year they improved to sixth in the conference and ended with a similar outcome the next season — Ionescu and Hebard’s first.
Then things began to fall into place.
The young duo established themselves as the team’s go-to options, executing the pick-and-roll to perfection. They had help from veterans such as now-WNBA point guard Maite Cazorla, and new recruits like Sabally — who became an instant contributor with her guard-like skill set and 6-foot-4 frame. The Ducks embraced a new play style: an up-tempo, high-powered offensive attack predicated on three-point marksmanship and easy buckets in the paint.
A new precedent set in. New standards. New goals.
By 2017, Oregon began to not only establish themselves nationally, but looked ready to compete for a national title as they took the Pac-12, women's basketball's most competitive conference, by storm.
But after the Ducks fell short against Baylor in last year’s Final Four matchup, Sabrina Ionescu had a choice to make about her future. And just like that, everything the Ducks had built toward was hanging in the balance, as their leader could leave without a title to show for their winning ways.
If there’s anything Ducks fans and women’s basketball fans around the nation have learned about Ionescu, though, it’s her passion, fight and unrelenting drive to be great. She and her teammates had unfinished business, so she returned.
Since then, the Ducks have been on a warpath. They took down Team USA, dismantled seven ranked opponents — four of which are in the top ten — and burst into Gampel Pavilion to take down UConn on national television.
“Wow, the house we built,” Ionescu said jokingly as she addressed the Oregon crowd, beginning her Senior Day speech.
Her statement, although meant in satirical fashion, rings true.
Ionescu and her teammates flipped a downtrodden program on its head and shook up women’s basketball, showing the nation that top-tier teams like UConn and Baylor are in fact, mortal. Most importantly, Ionescu is breaking down the boundaries between men’s and women’s hoops.
“[Sabrina] is changing the game...,” Graves said. “She’s getting crossover support from some of the great men’s basketball players, icons. She is, I think, making an impact for our sport that will be long lasting.”
Oregon is tops in the nation in terms of attendance, higher than any other women’s Pac-12 program and quite a few of the men’s programs as well. Even other Pac-12 teams experience huge jumps in attendance when the Ducks come to town.
Ionescu’s presence, as well as those of her teammates, will be sorely missed, but by no means is this the end of the story.
Last year the Ducks limped into the postseason, but that won’t be the case this year. Oregon is riding a 16-game winning streak and Graves’ group is healthier and deeper than ever.
“You can’t win this thing with just five players,” Sabally said. “We know that we rely on our bench players so much and they contribute every game so we’re not beat up.”
Ionescu will leave Oregon as the most accomplished college basketball player ever. Hebard leaves as the program's greatest post player with a Power-forward of The Year award under her belt. Sabally racked up plenty of accolades as well such as Pac-12 Freshman of the year and an All Pac-12 member a year ago as she now looks to be a top-three pick in the WNBA Draft. Moore, who played just a single season in a Ducks uniform after transferring from USC, showcases the Ducks growth, helping transform their defense into a top-30 unit.
The three seniors and junior still want a championship and look ready to go get it before beginning what could be illustrious professional careers. And every day, they show their younger teammates what it looks like to be truly great.
“It’s amazing to be able to look around and just give thanks to [my teammates] and to say there’s more to come,” said Moore.
“There won’t be another one like Sabrina,” Graves said. “There won’t be another one like Ruthy. But there will be others.”
Some of the “others” are already on the roster. Underclassmen such as Jaz Shelley, Taylor Chavez and Lydia Giomi have already shown promise and they’ll have help. The Ducks landed the top recruiting class in the nation for 2020, comprised of five, five-stars.
No matter how the postseason pans out, there’s reason for optimism now, optimism that even though the faces and names on the back of the jerseys have, and will continue to, change, the dominance can continue.
“We said that the 2016 class was going to change this program,” Graves said. “And it has.”
“This was a group that left quite a legacy, we’re losing some iconic players… we’re gonna miss them, it’s going to be tough but I think the future is really really bright,” he added.