SPOKANE, Wash. — Oregon head coach Kelly Graves issued a warning twice this weekend that in hindsight proved to be dead on.
After their win Friday over Central Michigan, in which the Ducks allowed 22 offensive rebounds, he talked about the importance of rebounding in the next round against the No. 1-seeded Notre Dame Irish.
“We can’t allow 22 offensive rebounds on Monday night or we’re going to get, you know, blown out,” Graves said. “That’s the bottom line.”
To further drive the point home, he reiterated himself during media availability on Sunday.
“If we do that tomorrow, we lose.”
Graves probably would’ve like for his team to prove him wrong. But on Monday night, his prediction rang true.
The Irish outrebounded the Ducks 51-29, with 19 of those boards coming on the offensive end leading to a 26-9 advantage in second-chance points for Notre Dame, which ended the Ducks’ historic season in the Elite Eight on Monday night at Spokane Arena, 84-74.
In a decisive third quarter, the Irish (33-3) grabbed 19 rebounds to Oregon’s six, and outscored the Ducks 21-9. Notre Dame entered the quarter trailing 46-40 and left with a 61-55 lead.
“That’s where the game was won,” Graves said.
After a blazing first half where each team seemingly scored at will — the Ducks shot 58 percent from the field and the Irish 48 percent — Notre Dame’s defense locked in. Oregon (33-5) made just three of its 17 shot attempts in the third quarter (17 percent) on top of getting outrebounded by 13.
Over the first three minutes and 28 seconds of the third quarter, the Irish rattled off a 15-4 run that Oregon never recovered from.
“We knew they were going to come out and punch us,” sophomore guard Sabrina Ionescu said. “We just had to be able to punch back, and we didn’t.”
Ionescu, who earlier on Monday became the first member of the Oregon women’s program to make the AP All-American first team, struggled over the final 20 minutes to return to her first half form that yielded 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting. She scored just seven points and made just one of her nine second-half shot attempts.
She finished the last game of her sophomore season with 26 points, five rebounds and four assists.
The Ducks got as close as two in the fourth quarter but never retook the lead that they surrendered with 6:27 left in the third.
“You saw a team that was still trying to climb the mountain, trying to get to where we’ve never been before,” Graves said. “And you saw a team that knew how to get there, and they wanted it.”
Ruthy Hebard, who earned an All-American honorable mention earlier Monday, scored 12 points in the first half but was held without a bucket until there was 5:48 left in the fourth quarter. She finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds but only accounted for five points and one board in the second half.
As a team, the usually-dangerous Ducks were held in check from deep by a team that on average allowed opponents to shoot almost 35 percent from 3-point range. Notre Dame used its length and athleticism to pressure the Ducks on the perimeter, forcing miss after miss.
The Ducks, who average a national-best 40.4 percent from three, made just four of their 15 attempts.
“They knew our personnel well,” Ionescu said. “That’s what they did. They played us to our weaknesses.”
At the postgame dais, a somber Ionescu reflected on what had been the greatest season in program history. She, like Graves, recognized the significance that the 33 wins, Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles and No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament had on the program. She expressed optimism among regret that Oregon came up short of the Final Four, a goal that it deemed completely within reach.
“I’ll definitely remember this game,” she said. “It was a great run. I mean, it’s going to hurt. We had a great year. I’m happy our freshmen were able to come in and contribute and see what it’s like to play for an Elite Eight. I’m happy we were able to do that last year.”
Ionescu will be back next year, along with a majority of Oregon’s roster. She vowed to do better next season.
“We’re going to come back, we’re going to learn from this,” Ionescu said. “We’re going to come back better and hunting this Final Four next year.”
Follow Gus Morris on Twitter @JustGusMorris