New heights on the Oregon trail.
Kelly Graves and the Oregon Ducks set out to reach the Final Four after bowing out in the Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons.
They’re headed to Tampa after Sunday’s Elite Eight victory over No. 1 seed Mississippi State. Next up is Baylor, the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed out of the Greensboro region.
“I know one of the focuses this year was to get here to a Final Four,” Graves said in Tuesday’s media conference call. “We didn’t want to be an Elite 8 program, we wanted to be a Final Four program.”
Baylor poses a unique challenge to any opponent. Their lone loss of the season occurred back on December 15 at Stanford. The Lady Bears are led by 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown and 6-foot-4 Lauren Cox in the frontcourt.
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Oregon faced one dominant big in Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan twice this season—December 18 in Eugene and in Sunday’s regional final in Portland. Now they must prepare for two of them.
“It’s different than anything we’ve seen and had to defend,” Graves said. “I think it is a help, though, that we had to go through trying to stop a powerful post player like [McCowan].
“We have some experience with one. It’s the second that is so different. But Ruthy [Hebard], she is a hard, hard worker. She’s a talented player herself. She’s strong and determined, but she’s also going to need help.”
Sabrina Ionescu hit the shot of the game, dribbling to her left and pulling back for a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give the Ducks a six-point lead with 1:13 to play.
Two different blocks by Hebard on Mississippi State’s prior possession kept the Bulldogs from closing within a point. She blocked a shot by McCowan at the rim, got up seconds later to reject a second attempt and secured the defensive rebound.
Oregon may need even more individual brilliance from Hebard to both limit and erase potential scoring opportunities for Brown and Cox. The Ducks will need to find ways to send help as that duo looks to score out of the post, and a joint effort on the defensive glass will be as important as ever to hold Baylor to one shot on as many trips as possible.
Graves also acknowledged that the Lady Bears are the No. 1 overall seed for reasons beyond Cox and Brown’s dominance inside.
“I think they’re more than just the two,” Graves said. “There are other really good parts. I think Chloe Jackson, man, she is terrific. I remember watching her at LSU a few times.”
Jackson is the team’s third-leading scorer at 11.4 points per game. Fellow starting guard Juicy Landrum is a 40 percent 3-point shooter. The fifth member of the starting lineup is DiDi Richards, a sharp cutter, passer and offensive rebounder that exploits cracks in a defense without relying much on her jump shot.
“They’re long, they’re athletic, they can run a whole bunch of different players at you, change styles if they need to,” Graves said. “They shoot it, they’re not a prolific three-point shooting team, but a really good shooting team, especially from the midrange.”
Oregon is a prolific 3-point shooting team, including Notre Dame transfer Erin Boley, shooting 43.3 percent from deep in her first season with the Ducks. Satou Sabally had one of her biggest performances (22 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks) since a January hot streak at the start of Pac-12 play. Sabally, Maite Cazorla and Ionescu each played all 40 minutes against Mississippi State.
Oregon’s face another tall task Friday to stay out of foul trouble, take care of the ball and continue to score efficiently against an elite defensive club.
“The way we shoot the basketball, we’re always in a game. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Graves said.
“Yeah, we may be the underdog going in, sure. I know our kids believe. We’re going to go in and fight. We’re going to compete. That’s who we are.”
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