TAMPA, Fla. — Pack the bags. Roll up the carpet. The party is over.
After a historic run to its first-ever Final Four, Oregon women’s basketball is coming home. No. 1-seeded Baylor bested the second-seeded Ducks, but head coach Kelly Graves’ team has plenty to be proud of.
“We made the most out of what we had this year,” Graves said. “You saw eight players, not very often you have eight players in a uniform at a Final Four game. But they gave us everything they had. I applaud them for it. I'm really proud of them. I love each and every one of them.”
These eight women who played the 2018-19 season have helped elevate the program into a national title contender for next season after knocking on the door of the championship game.
In a season of firsts, the back-to-back Pac-12 regular season champions were led by junior Sabrina Ionescu. The back-to-back national point guard of the year, who became the first Duck to be named the national player of the year, has become a household name, not just in Eugene, but nationwide. And she’s going to be back for more in her senior year, putting off the WNBA one more year.
Ionescu will be back. These Ducks want to be back.
Graves had a plan to get Oregon to the Final Four in four years. “Four in four,” as he called it. Five years later, he did it and earned a contract extension through the 2025-26 season in the process.
“We're going to look back on this as a tremendous season and another step. It always hurts. It does and it should,” Graves said. “But this was a tremendous season. I think what we've done for basketball in the state of Oregon is incredible. Again, you see all three [Ionescu, Erin Boley and Satou Sabally] of these players up here ... this is a program that's not going anywhere. It's only a program that's going to get better.”
Oregon defeated No. 4 Mississippi State in December and beat the Bulldogs again to get into the Final Four. This team ran a No. 11-ranked Stanford off its home court in a 40-point thrashing, the worst loss of Cardinal head coach Tara VanDerveer’s career. The Ducks hung with the eventual national champions Baylor until the very end.
But the season came to an end in the semifinal: 33 wins, five losses. The last one of the five hurts the most.
With puffy, red eyes and faces riddled with heartbreak, Oregon players spoke with cracked voices after their national semifinal loss to Baylor. There was no blame. There was some sorrow. There was a lot of promise.
“We continue to learn,” Ionescu said. “We were put in positions we haven't been put before. But I think this is just going to make us more hungry. We got to this stage that our program has never got to. So I think learning through this game and learning through the previous years — it's just going to get us ready to want to come back.”
Ionescu wrote in the Players’ Tribune to announce her plans to stay with the program for one more season. For one more shot at it all.
“My teammates and I, our coaches, our fans, this program — we’re not going on a ‘run,’ you know what I mean??” she wrote. “We’re not doing one of those things where, like, a team appears out of the blue, on the backs of a few good players, and then makes some noise for a season or two before heading back underground. Nah. This isn’t that.
“We’re building something here in Eugene.”
With Ionescu back, competing for the national title becomes expected.
Oregon played with a small squad and might be in the same situation next year. With a roster of just 10 players, the Ducks got used to a short bench. Next year, the Ducks will bring in at least British wing Holly Winterburn, Australian point guard Jazmin Shelley and Australian 6-foot-5 post Lucy Cochrane to fill out the roster at 11 players.
German forward Nyara Sabally, the younger sister of Satou Sabally, will make her debut for the Ducks after sitting out her freshman year as she recovered from an ACL injury.
The Ducks have strong additions, but they do lose seniors Maite Cazorla and Oti Gildon.
“They helped me so much this year as people off the field but also as people on the field,” Nyara said. “Just watching how hard they work every day in practice and on the field and how they’re dialed in. It’s just amazing to see that. I’ve never been around such good players in my whole life. They’re just great role models.”
The two seniors saw the program in its infancy of greatness, when crowds of fewer than 3,000 fans attended Matthew Knight Arena.
They’ve seen the program grow and the fanbase grow with it.
From those quiet home games four years ago to crowds averaging more than 7,000 fans, highlighted by a 12,000-plus attended Civil War, the Ducks have become a local and national sensation.
Whether it’s tweets from Duck women’s basketball superfan Shea Serrano or from LeBron James or Steph Curry, people are keeping tabs on this team. It’s evident when players get stopped by fans on the street and students on campus.
“You can’t go anywhere,” forward Lydia Giomi said. “You can’t go to the grocery store [or] a restaurant without being recognized.”
That recognition is paying off as the program looks to become more than a flash in the pan. It’s in the making of becoming a dynasty, starting with the teams that have made these deep NCAA Tournament runs over three seasons.
“A lot of people didn’t believe that we could come here and give them a game. but we were able to hang with them and give them a game to the end,” Gildon said. “So that’ll definitely put Oregon on the map for women’s basketball if nothing else in the past two years hasn’t.”
It clicked for this team two seasons ago as the underdog 10-seed taking down No. 7 Temple, No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Maryland before falling to No. 1 UConn. The Ducks shocked the women’s basketball world back then, but now it’s no surprise to see them on the biggest stage.
“The sisterhood we’ve built here — I think we’ve paved the way for a lot of recruits, a lot of players trying to find a college to play for,” Ionescu said. “There’s nowhere better to be than here. I’m blessed to play with these players and these coaches with this administration here.
“I would not advise anyone to go anywhere else than here.”
Half of the team flew back to Eugene on the charter flight two days earlier than they might have had in mind. The other half stayed with family who traveled to Tampa.
Ionescu watched from the stands last year at the Final Four. Now, she got a taste of it.
She said it best in her “letter to Duck Nation.”
“We have unfinished business.”
Follow Shawn Medow on Twitter @ShawnMedow