Elbows were thrown for position. Bodies collided and fell into piles over rebounds and loose balls. It was the physical game Oregon women's basketball head coach Kelly Graves expected against a team he called "the best rebounding team in the nation."
After a grueling battle decided by persistence and grit, the No. 7 Oregon women's basketball team upset the No. 4 Mississippi State Bulldogs 82-74 in a final-four caliber match-up, improving to 9-1 on the season.
"This was a tough, gutty win," said Graves. "Like we say at the beginning of every game, 'The toughest team wins.' and tonight, I thought we were the tougher team."
Up against one of the most formidable centers in the country in senior Teaira McCowan, Oregon junior forward Ruthy Hebard found herself in a clash for position in the paint. Hebard worked relentlessly to box-out McCowan, drawing fouls, contesting rebounds and, at times, frustrating the 6-foot 7 Mississippi State center.
"I can't even put into words how much she has been practicing mentally and physically to take down a great post player like that," said junior guard Sabrina Ionescu. "We hold her to really high standards in that post play, and tonight, she showed us what she was capable of."
McCowan's dominant presence was a force the Ducks intended to exploit from the beginning through double-teams and the pick-and-roll.
Hebard, who had 14 points and six rebounds in the game, was used to draw McCowan out of the paint. Forcing McCowan out of the low post through the pick-and-roll in the outer wings allowed guards like senior Maite Cazorla to sprint around her. Cazorla drove past the Mississippi State defense for 20 points in the game, which coach Graves said was key for setting an aggressive momentum early on.
"[Hebard] just kept [McCowan] outside that painted area," said Graves. "She was a warrior tonight. She truly was and I'm really proud of her."
The game's physicality did not stop with the battle of Hebard and McCowan. Ionescu drew fouls throughout the game, which led to her perfect 17-17 night from the line. Ionescu, who tied her season-high, with 29 points, said she had never been to the free-throw line that many times and remained perfect.
"We knew that they liked to play bully ball and that they had great athletes," said Ionescu. "That's what they thrive on. We had to stand our ground because they are tougher, and tonight, for me, that was getting to the line."
Late in the second quarter, Mississippi State gathered three offensive rebounds in one possession, but each second-chance opportunity went highly contest by the lunging and leaping Ducks defense. Bodies fell across the floor, but Ionescu came out on the other side with a fast-break opportunity that she zipped to Cazorla for the lay-in. The stadium erupted.
"There are so many things that go in to toughness other than the physical part," said Mississippi State head coach Vic Shaefer, said his team prides themselves on winning games like these. "It's about execution and focus. We just got the toughness piece handed to us tonight."