Oregon women’s basketball ended its 2017-18 season in Spokane, Washington, with an Elite Eight loss to Notre Dame, and since, the team graduated two seniors and lost four more players from its roster through transfer or going pro. Still, the Ducks’ NCAA Tournament hopes are driving their shortened bench.
“Our goal this year is the Final Four, and with lower numbers, we’re talking about how Notre Dame did it with lower numbers, so that’s a little motivation to prove that we can do it as well,” junior forward Ruthy Hebard said. “Mental toughness and physical toughness this year is going to be a big thing.”
Just under a month out from its preseason premier at University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Ducks return seven players, including redshirt sophomore Morgan Yaeger who redshirted last season — her second year at Oregon — due to a back injury, and sophomore Lydia Giomi, who sat out Oregon’s last six games due to a foot injury.
Notre Dame transfer and redshirt sophomore Erin Boley joins freshmen Taylor Chavez on the court this season for Oregon, though Boley did train with the Ducks last season. Freshman Nyara Sabally, sophomore forward Satou Sabally’s younger sister, has also joined the Ducks, but will sit out this season due to a knee injury. With Nyara Sabally’s absence this season, the Ducks have just nine players healthy on their roster.
Oregon, considered a young team last season with just two seniors and two juniors on the 14-person squad (one of each in the starting line), returns as an established, seasoned team with back-to-back NCAA tournament experience.
“It really does feel like a veteran team,” junior guard Sabrina Ionescu said. “Coming back, I think we understand our goals and what it takes to get to where we want to be, and I think it’s showing in practice. The level of competition and how dialed in we are is definitely where we need to be.”
Four of Oregon’s five starters return, having lost only Lexi Bando. Boley will replace elite 3-point shooter Bando, bringing both a strong presence in the guard and the build of a tough post. Boley also competed this past summer with Ionescu, Hebard and senior Oti Gildon in the FIBA Women’s 3×3 World Cup, representing the United States.
“I think she’s going to help us be diverse offensively,” head coach Kelly Graves said. “She can post up — she’s got a really good post-up game. And then, she’s a big-time shooter. As that trail four we can run a lot of screen-to-screener action for her; we can get her open in a lot of ways. She’s a fun kind of player to coach because she forces me to be creative.”
Graves, Ionescu and Hebard travel to San Fransisco on Tuesday for Pac-12 media day, and Oregon will open the season on the road in Hebard’s hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska, on Nov. 4 at 8 p.m.
Follow Sierra Webster on Twitter @WebsterSierraE