With a major win behind them, how Team USA’s players will benefit at Oregon and UConn this season
Both Oregon and UConn made the NCAA Final Four in 2019. Both saw their NCAA title hopes end in separate national semifinal games. But this past weekend in Lima, Peru, the two adversaries joined forces to claim the inaugural 3×3 gold medal for Team USA at the Pan American Games.
The team itself was a fun mashup of veterans and (relative) newbies: Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard, who have led Oregon to their recent success as one of the most formidable duos in the game; and Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, both integral parts of UConn’s young core.
Throughout the tournament, it was clear that Ionescu and Hebard were running the show. As the rising seniors with the most senior international 3×3 experience, this was only natural.
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But rising sophomores Williams and Nelson-Ododa both made a handful of key plays all weekend, especially on the defensive end. For a UConn team that just lost another crop of seniors to the WNBA, their development is key to furthering the Huskies’ success.
Let’s dive into the ways this past weekend previewed the 2019-20 NCAA season.
Hebard remains Ionescu’s favorite target
With four of Oregon’s five starters from last season returning in the fall, get ready for another round of death, taxes and Ionescu racking up assists by finding Hebard in the paint.
Hebard isn’t an enormous scorer — her 16.1 points per game was good for third on the Ducks last season — but her 67 percent shooting was the second-best in the nation behind Iowa’s Megan Gustafson. To that effect, Hebard shot 79.6 percent this past weekend, including two games where she shot 100 percent.
While assists weren’t counted at the Pan Am Games, it wasn’t hard to tell from watching the games that Ionescu and Hebard connected a lot. And while Ionescu is certainly an assists machine — she had the most overall in the NCAA last season, and third-most per game — having the luxury of such a hot shooter in the paint helps immensely.
Notably, five of Ionescu’s eight triple-double games last season involved enough dishes to Hebard that Ionescu wouldn’t have reached (or in some cases, gotten at all close to) double digits in assists if not for Hebard’s baskets.
Ionescu is WNBA-bound, and No.1 overall pick-bound, and seems ready for yet another historic season. But just as she wouldn’t be in a position to shine this brightly without her teammates, it’s Hebard in particular that leads them both to such success.
Williams and Nelson-Ododa will (probably) get more international experience at UConn
While the recently-announced Team USA college tour sites haven’t been confirmed, it’s very reasonable to assume that UConn will be among them.
This means that Williams and Nelson-Ododa, both of whom have prior Team USA experience at the youth level, will likely meet even tougher competition this season from Team USA itself. Former UConn stars Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird are among the players they may face, along with several more Husky alums currently in the national team pool.
Williams, who started every game for the Huskies last season, was the only freshman in the starting five as well as the first freshman to start her first career game for UConn since Breanna Stewart in 2012. Her 11.7 points per game was modest by UConn standards — fifth on the team — but with career highlights already including a 28-point game against Notre Dame and a 17.4 points per game average in the NCAA Tournament, Williams is clearly primed to be a big scorer.
In Lima, Williams averaged about 3.3 points per game on 40.5 percent shooting. It’s below her 49.9 percent shooting for the Huskies, but she was a bigger contributor in Lima, averaging 16 percent of the team’s points to 14 percent for UConn.
Meanwhile, Nelson-Ododa was the most popular pick off the bench last season, appearing in all 38 games and starting in four. She’s an accurate shooter, making 52.3 percent of her shots as a freshman at UConn; this was good for second on the team behind Napheesa Collier. Nelson-Ododa also only trailed Collier in blocks, registering 54 on the season. At six-foot-four, Nelson-Ododa will be UConn’s tallest player in 2019-20, a privilege that has already started to pay off in a big way.
Nelson-Ododa’s defense took center stage in Lima: She registered block after block (again, a stat not made available, but one evident to even the casual viewer) while also contributing 2.8 points per game. Like Hebard, Nelson-Ododa also registered a 100 percent shooting effort — this one in the semifinal against Brazil.
It’s also worth mentioning that Nelson-Ododa’s free throw shooting was dramatically better at the Pan Am Games than at UConn: She made 81.8 percent of her free throws over the weekend to 53.2 percent as a freshman.
Though Williams and Nelson-Ododa weren’t the stars of this tournament, they’ll likely have a big impact at UConn this season — perhaps even against Team USA.
Oregon and UConn set to meet in the fall
There’s no date in place yet, but last month UConn confirmed that Oregon will visit Gampel Pavilion as part of its jam-packed nonconference slate.
Last time these teams met in 2017, then-freshmen Ionescu and Hebard were no match for the likes of Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson, Gabby Williams, Kia Nurse and the rest in a 90-52 Elite Eight beatdown.
UConn is only down two starters from last season, Collier and Samuelson, and has the benefit of one of the most dominant home court advantages in college hoops. The Huskies have neither lost in the state of Connecticut nor at Gampel Pavilion since 2013 — both times to Notre Dame.
That said, both head coaches relied heavily on their starters last season, tending to stick with same five players in every game it was possible. By the numbers, this works in Oregon’s favor.
While both teams play a rather short bench, the Ducks have experience on their side from top to bottom. Down just Maite Cazorla, they’ll feature two seniors in Ionescu and Hebard, redshirt junior Erin Boley and junior Satou Sabally in their starting five.
The Huskies, on the other hand, could start Nelson-Ododa alongside Christyn Williams this season, making at least two sophomores in the starting five to go along with senior Crystal Dangerfield and junior Megan Walker.
It’s not the biggest advantage in the world for Oregon, especially against a UConn team that has found ways to consistently win at home for the past six years, but it’s one they’ll be happy to tap into.
At the end of the day, if anything, we should get a nice #OreConn 3×3 reunion after the game.
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