College basketball’s biggest star takes home the prestigious honors.
LOS ANGELES — It may not have ended in a national championship, but it was huge season nonetheless for Sabrina Ionescu. The NCAA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles, she helped lead the Oregon Ducks to their first-ever Final Four.
After weighing whether to enter the WNBA Draft as an early-entrant candidate, she released an article through The Players Tribune announcing her decision to return to Eugene for her senior year.
Her latest laurel for a remarkable junior season arrived Friday night, when she was honored with the John R. Wooden Award, the most prestigious individual award given to the top players in men’s and women’s college basketball. For someone who studied the legendary coach while growing up, it was an honor for Ionescu to have won.
“It’s a blessing of course. I couldn’t have done it without key pieces, this award is not won alone, but it’s a blessing,” Ionescu told High Post Hoops. “Growing up I read a lot of John Wooden’s books, and I was really inspired by him and what he valued. Just being able to be given an award named after him is really a blessing.”
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Ionescu might know a thing or two herself when it comes to playing for a legendary coach. She’s spent her college basketball career being mentored by Kelly Graves, who is a for sure future Hall of Fame coach.
Graves arrived in Eugene just a couple years before Ionescu did, and was tasked with rebuilding the Ducks program from the ground up. He guided Oregon to the Women’s NIT in his second year, and ever since, they’ve been one of the elite college basketball teams in the nation.
“He incorporates everything John Wooden did, he’s just a great coach, super personable, and holds us to a really high standard,” Ionescu said. “He’s like a father figure to us off the court and that speaks volumes about where this program has gone, and he has a lot to do with that.”
Just about a week prior to winning the Wooden Award, Ionescu faced a difficult task. Almost immediately after the Ducks heartbreaking loss to Baylor in the Final Four, she had to make a decision on whether she would return to Oregon, or enter the WNBA draft.
Had she declared for the draft, there’s no question she would have been the No. 1 overall pick. But as she detailed in her Players Tribune article, she still has some unfinished business. She wants to continue to build with her teammates and coaches for at least one more year. To her, that’s more important than all the records and stats.
“Everything, just continue to grow my relationships with my team, my coaches, and everyone involved. Relationships are a huge part of the University of Oregon and why I decided to go there,” Ionescu said. “The other things, stats and all the accolades will take care of themselves. But just continuing to have fun with my last year in college, that’s what I’m going back to school for.”
Aside from that, Ionescu still believes she can improve as a player. There are still aspects of her game she feels she can fine tune before she hears her named called at the WNBA draft.
There is one part of her game that is down pat though, that’s her ability rise to the occasion in pressure situations. A lot of basketball players run from the ball in crunch time. She’s not one them, she embraces the moment.
In one of the most clutch moments of this past NCAA tournament, Ionescu found herself at the top of the arc, isolated against Mississippi State’s Jordan Danberry. The Ducks were clinging to a 78-75 lead with just over a minute to play. She took a few dribbles, then stepped back and hit the game-clinching three.
And sometimes, you won’t always have it at that moment, it happens. In the Ducks’ loss to Baylor, Ionescu struggled against the tandem of DiDi Richards and Juicy Landrum. She went without a field goal in the fourth quarter. But having that confidence to make plays down the stretch, that’s one half of the battle.
“At the end of the day, you fall back to the level of your training. I’ve put in a lot of work to be in the position that I am, and I’ve always dreamed about moments like that,” Ionescu said. “I’ve always practiced in my backyard for moments like that, visualizing the shot clock winding down, visualizing that type of game. Once that moment hits, it’s basically just like another practice, another workout. It’s not too much different.”
Although she has no doubt cemented herself as one of the greatest college basketball players of all-time, she’s humble in her standing. Despite being the NCAA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles, she believes she can still grow as a player. When she leaves Oregon, she wants to be the absolute best player she can possibly be.
“There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but I’m just really thankful to be in the position that I am with the team and the coaches, and everyone that makes it go,” Ionescu said. “I’m just going to continue to come back this year and learn from my mistakes, continue to grow as a player, and hopefully leave college with a legacy.”
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