By Richard Farley
Special to High Post Hoops
PORTLAND, Ore. – The high points are always telling. Then again, any player looks good in their best moments. How many talents, though, can look great when they screw up? Is that even possible?
Maybe this is where we’re getting a little too carried away with the University of Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, but there was moment during her team’s 63-53 victory over South Dakota State at Moda Center in Portland, Oregon, on Friday night that was great through its badness. Ionescu had 17 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds in the Elite-Eight clinching victory – a mild line for a player who, this year, set a single-season record for triple-doubles (eight) – yet there was still a moment of stark contrast in an otherwise persuasive performance.
It came in the second quarter, minutes after the undisputed best player in college basketball – a player that is destined to go first in the next WNBA Draft, should she elect to forego her senior year – came to life in her team’s Round of 16 match, hitting three shots in a row at the end of the first quarter to give Oregon a six-point edge. The Ducks would lead for the rest of the game, yet moments after her hot streak, Ionescu would launch a three-point attempt so bad, it barely caught the far side of the rim before falling directly down and out of play, into the Oregon bench.
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Still, by the time the ball reached her teammates, Ionescu was already in front of them, getting her left hand to her miss just moments after she could have kept the ball in play. From the instant she released the ball, the 21-year-old knew her shot was off – a feeling anybody who’s spent enough of their life on the court has shared. But she not only felt her mistake and intuited where, exactly, the ball would go, but she also made her way across almost the entire width of the court to get there, doing so before anybody else on the floor and almost in time to claim another rebound.
The shot was so bad, it was Ionescu’s worst moment of the night. Even in that failure, though, the Ducks star was still brilliant. The legend’s feel for the game appears to be at an unparalleled level.
And legend, no doubt, is what Ionescu is. Whether this is her last season in green and gold is unknown and, in the expectation she’ll turn pro, carries the feeling of a foregone conclusion, but her three years in Eugene, Oregon, are already enough to cast her as one of the best players in Pac 12 history. A two-time conference Player of the Year (2018, 2019), National Freshman of the Year (2017) and likely National Player of the Year this season, Ionescu has already done, on an individual level, everything you would want in a collegiate career.
In that sense, how the Ducks finish this season will constitute degrees of greatness, when it comes to Ionescu’s legacy, not whether she should be considered a legend at all. On the team level, she’s already brought the Oregon program to heights it’s never felt, making Ducks basketball a hot ticket on campus while, now, guiding her team to a third-straight Elite Eight. The U. of O. actually cares about women’s basketball, a lot, and while winning a national title certainly won’t hurt that love, Ionescu’s cultural significance in central Oregon transcends anything that can be captured by a trophy cabinet or in the wins column.
Yet, let’s allow us to consider the hypothetical. The Ducks will face the West’s top seed on Sunday, Mississippi State. But they’ll do so in front of what will amount to a home crowd, having also defeated the Bulldogs once in Oregon, this season. Head coach Kelly Graves’ team will be the weaker seed when the teams tip-off tomorrow, but arguably, they should be considered the favorites.
And what of the team’s chances in Tampa? Baylor looks like the West winner’s likely semifinal matchup, and in the Bears, any opponent will be facing the hottest team in the nation. Yet with a possible victory over a team like Mississippi State comes a bit of reassurance: If you can take out the Bulldogs, you can take out anybody else in the tournament. Be it Baylor or UConn. Louisville, Notre Dame or Stanford. There are no easy matches from here on out, but in victory on Sunday – or, in the victory Oregon claimed over MSU on Dec. 18 – there’s proof of what Ducks’ season can be.
“(We’re) super excited to be able to play that team again,” Ionescu confessed Friday night, of the Mississippi State matchup. “They’re one of the top teams in the country. I think it’s going to show how much we’ve grown from the last time we played them and what we need to work on.”
For Oregon loyalists, the Ducks’ ceiling has been evident all season. After all, the Ducks were a team that projected on the tournament’s one-line for much of the Pac 12 campaign, only dropping from that perch after a conference tournament loss to Stanford. Particularly with center Ruthy Hebard’s efficiency inside and Satou Sabally’s inside-and-out game helping Ionescu form a big three, the Ducks’ bonafides have been evident to green-and-gold clad all season. But from a distance, this is still a team that doesn’t have the cache of a Notre Dame, Louisville or Baylor, yet; and it’s a team which, for all of Hebard’s and Sabally’s obvious quality, still gives the impression of being carried by a singular, transcendent star.
That may cast Oregon in place where they need to prove themselves, but it also leaves Ionescu’s legacy in a no-lose situation. Already a guaranteed legend, the Ducks icon will get the bulk of the credit for whatever her team does, no matter the heights Hebard and Sabally reach over the next three rounds. And, if the Ducks do come up short on Sunday, potentially failing to reach a Final Four during Ionescu’s time in Eugene, they’ll bow out to one of the strongest programs over the last three years (Mississippi State), another singular, dominant talent (Teaira McCowan), and well after the program achieved new, heightened relevance.
Either way, Ionescu’s legacy is assured. From here forward, she’s working in shades of greatness, where even her failures will be cast in terms of legend. All that’s left, now, is finding out how her Oregon story concludes.
“We’ve been thinking about this opportunity since our last loss last year to Notre Dame,” Ionescu said. “This is what we work for, this is what we dream of. Now it’s time to make our dreams a reality.”
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