TAMPA, Fla. — Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said that “one of these things is not like the other” at this year’s Final Four.
The No. 2-seed Ducks are in their first ever Final Four. They’re up against No. 1-seed Baylor, which is in its fourth Final Four — all under head coach Kim Mulkey. On the other side of the bracket is women’s basketball royalty with UConn and head coach Geno Auriemma, and the defending national champions Notre Dame, coached by Muffet McGraw.
“I think we belong here,” Oregon forward Ruthy Hebard said. “I’ve believed in my team all these three years. It’s really great to see we’re next to Notre Dame and next to UConn but hopefully someday somebody will be saying, ‘Wow, we’re next to Oregon.’ That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Oregon has been in the national spotlight all season long — much of this is due to star point guard Sabrina Ionescu. The Ducks are getting used to it, and they’re also getting used to it at home.
Following Oregon’s return to Eugene from the Portland Regional, the team went out to ice cream at Prince Pucklers, which is down the road from its home arena.
“Everybody in the ice cream parlor and in the area were clapping,” forward Lydia Giomi said.
Before Oregon set out for Tampa Bay on Tuesday, Ionescu, who was talking on her phone and wheeling her luggage, crossed Villard Street to get to Matthew Knight Arena where the team bus waited. She was honked at and waved to by a fan in his car. Ionescu gave him wave back. Then, an 18-wheeler drove by, the driver lowered the window and called out to Ionescu, who once again acknowledged her fan.
“You can’t go anywhere,” Giomi said. “You can’t go to the grocery store, a restaurant without being recognized.”
That’s a big change from what Giomi says she used to experience when she first arrived on Oregon’s campus two years ago.
“Everyone thought we were volleyball,” Giomi said. “But now everyone knows who we are.”
Now on campus, the team is correctly identified. Much of that has to do with the advertising campaign dubbing the team "Wonder Ducks."
“We have students come up to us all the time,” Giomi said. “It really shows what this program and this coaching staff is capable of. And it also speaks to the culture of this team.”
The team is even making waves in NBA press conferences, with Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry giving Ionescu and the Ducks a shoutout this week.
Ionescu’s impact on the program can’t be understated. She’s up for the national player of the year award and she’s been named a First-Team All-American and the Pac-12’s player of the year for the second straight season.
“I will tell you that it all starts with Sabrina. What a talent. What a joy to watch if you're not having to play against her,” Mulkey said. “The thing that I love more than her talent is I love the way she competes. She's got that 'umph' in her. She makes everybody around her better. She's just a special, special talent.”
This Final Four appearance has launched this program to new heights that were only imagined during these players’ recruiting processes. The national praise the team is receiving is not going unnoticed.
“It just shows this program is amazing,” Giomi said. “This coaching staff is capable of so much, this team is capable of a lot and it also speaks to the culture of the team and that culture of the coaching staff expects.”
Ionescu knows the eyes are on her. The junior might just be the biggest name in women’s collegiate basketball right now. And now, she and her team will step on its biggest stage.
“Now it's game time,” Ionescu said. “We're focusing on the game. We're not really going to change who we are. We're going to enjoy and be appreciative of the position we're in.”
Follow Shawn Medow on Twitter @ShawnMedow