A trip five years in the making.
By Richard Farley
Special to High Post Hoops
PORTLAND, Ore. – The first hint their advantage was real wasn’t in warmups, when the partisan crowd at Moda Center in Portland, Oregon, welcomed the Oregon Ducks to the court. It wasn’t during warmups, when the pregame hype peaked at the introduction of Duck star Sabrina Ionescu, nor was it at tipoff, when a short toss led to a first possession in the hands of the West region’s one-seed, the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
No, the first indication that Oregon’s home court advantage would be real came late in the first quarter, when a three-pointer with 2:04 left marked Ionescu’s first points of the then-morning. Eighty-nine seconds later, Ionescu drained another one – the fourth, fifth and sixth of her day’s 31 points — evening the game at 19 and giving the Ducks every indication they were playing 112 miles south, at Matthew Knight Arena.
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If there was a tiebreaker between two teams which, this year, have proven such an even matchup, the 11,324 people in Moda’s stands may have been it. Yet to see that as only cause of what happened Sunday afternoon – an 88-84 result that secured Oregon’s spot in this year’s Final Four – would be short-sighted, if not outright naïve. Sports are not only about overcoming obstacles but, over the course of a season, securing advantages. And all week, Ducks head coach Kelly Graves had made it clear how he felt about a “home” game in Portland.
“We had eyes toward Portland right from the beginning,” he said, Friday night. “I’m not going to lie about that. We wanted to play well enough. We knew we had to earn it. They weren’t just going to give it to us. By winning the Pac-12 regular season championship, we earned the right to come here.”
A right and an advantage, but to imply the Bulldogs couldn’t overcome the Moda Center crowd would be an insult to both Mississippi State and Oregon, as well as too complementary of the Portland crowd.
“I know where our game is, to answer your question,” Bulldogs head coach Vic Schaefer said, when asked what would have been different if the game was played at a neutral site. “I get it. It was a great environment.
“Our kids, we’ve been in that environment a bunch. We played on the road in the Southeastern Conference. I just thought a great environment. I was proud to be a coach in that game today, be a part of an industry, women’s basketball.”
Sunday’s was an atmosphere you’d want for any major event, with Ionescu sharing, “The floor was shaking,” and that she and her teammates “are definitely not taking that for granted.”
But it wasn’t so enormous, so overbearing as to doom the Bulldogs. On the contrary, the SEC champions were never down by more than a possession in the first half, never down more than two possessions until 0:35 showed on the fourth-quarter clock. The lead changed 15 times, with MSU up for 12:33 of the game. One good run at any point, and Sunday’s game could have gone to the “home” team.
There is, however, something undeniable about playing in front of positive reassurance. It’s what you grow up imagining you’ll hear and feel in the game’s biggest moments. You spend a lifetime programming yourself to absorb the assurance; to erupt with pride when your defense makes a big stop. You dream of the wave of a capacity crowd’s roar when your team hits the sealing shot.
Ruthy Hebard experienced those moments on Sunday, yelling with triumph multiple times in the third quarter after winning battles with Teaira McCowan. Hebard lost minutes in the first half with foul trouble, but when she returned to the court after intermission, the crowd, she said, “definitely help(ed).”
“Hearing them, not wanting to let them down,” she explained. “I didn’t want it to go quiet during those hustle plays. That gets the crowd riled up, gets our team riled up.”
Satou Sabally came into the day intent on riding her emotion, saying on Friday that she had “a really bad game” when the Ducks faced Mississippi State in December. The German-born wing’s all-regional performance was not only fueled by Sunday’s 22 points, seven rebounds and three blocks, but also by the crowd.
“This is what we’re playing for, right?” she responded, when asked about the environment. “All these people watching, all these little girls or little boys watching up on us. We’re a big inspiration for them. Just knowing that everyone has our back and is cheering us on, is traveling all the way, some people were coming from California. It’s just amazing to see.”
Amazing and, when two evenly-matched teams end up only four points apart, potentially decisive. Nobody can truly know, and although Schaefer and his players pointed to their performance – and their inability to prevent Oregon’s 13-for-26 shooting from three – as the game’s key, familiarity has to be worth something. Comfort does, too. The moments of frustration, when there’s no crowd to reassure you, have to matter. It certainly seems to as the Bulldogs sought solutions in the game’s second half. It’s not too much to think that the 11,534 stacked to the roof at Moda Center helped forge the gap between the groups.
What also forged the gap, though, is how the Ducks got here. It started five years ago, when Graves took the leap from Gonzaga to Oregon. It continued the next year, when point guard Maite Cazorla – quietly, one of the best players on the floor on Sunday – arrived in Eugene, Oregon, from Spain, and it accelerated the next year, when Oregon’s ambition matched that of Walnut Creek, California’s Ionescu. Hebard came, too, from Faribanks, Alaska, with Sebally arriving a year later from Berlin.
Sunday’s victory wasn’t about taking advantage of fortuitous circumstances. It was about creating fortune for yourself, be it in a spread offense that kept putting McCowan in pick and rolls; a work rate that ended up, remarkably, winning the day’s rebounding battle; or, in a skillset that meant any open jumper along the perimeter had a 50-50 chance of giving Oregon three points on the scoreboard. Were the Ducks lucky to hit half their three pointers? No more lucky than they were to have a home-court edge after building a contender from scraps, refining a culture and, after Sunday’s win, leaving themselves two wins away from joining the game’s elite. Yes, playing in Portland was an edge, but in the biggest of pictures – one that goes beyond one season’s tournament draw, or the choices that go into deciding the locations of regionals – it was an edge the Ducks had earned.
On Sunday, the Ducks earned something more important – the team’s first trip to a final – and while coaches and players needed to be asked how much Moda Center played into the result, both sides were able to maintain perspective on what the Ducks have done.
“We probably could have played it somewhere else and been on a completely neutral floor and played in front of a thousand people,” Schaefer said. “Do we want that, or do we want to play in that environment today?”
More than results, we want teams to create something that matters. That’s what Oregon has done. The Ducks moved on to the Final Four with Sunday’s victory, but in the stands around Moda, and in the festivities this weekend around Portland, the University of Oregon showed there’s a bigger battle that, long ago, they’d already won. That’s the real advantage they’re earned.
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