Cinderella story: How the Gonzaga and Oregon underdog Elite Eight runs kept the 2010s fun

Legendary point guards, confidence in adversity and two programs on the rise

Chances were, Ruthy Hebard’s shot was going in.

No matter that it was the waning seconds of Oregon’s first chance to win an NCAA Tournament game since 2005. No matter that the Ducks had a No. 10 seed in the 2017 tournament, had barely made it into the field and had to travel across the country to play. Shooting nearly 60 percent on the season, the freshman Hebard’s turnaround jumper with 5.5 seconds left was probably going in. And it did, giving Oregon a one-point lead.

Too soon, Temple’s Feyonda Fitzgerald appeared to have a wide-open path for a game-winning layup at the other end. But at the last second — literally — Hebard sprinted across the lane and contested the shot. No good. Fitzgerald went straight to the ground. No whistle. And the final buzzer sounded.

Maite Cazorla was the first to reach Hebard and jumped into her arms. The rest of the team soon followed.

“I think it’s been the biggest shot we’ve had,” Oregon head coach Kelly Graves told High Post Hoops. “You know, since we’ve been here. Because that’s the one that got us started.”

With wins following against No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Maryland, the Ducks became the second team of the 2010s to make an Elite Eight as a double-digit seed. And though they’d eventually fall to top-seeded UConn, it was clear the groundwork was set for several successful seasons to come.

Six years earlier, in 2011, the No. 11 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs were the first double-digit seed to make an Elite Eight this decade. That team still holds the record for the lowest seed in the women’s tournament to get there. Famously playing all four of their games either on campus or less than two miles away at Spokane Arena, the Zags dispatched No. 6 Iowa, No. 3 UCLA and No. 7 Louisville before falling to another top-seeded foe in Stanford.

Graves was there for that run, too, having come to Oregon from Gonzaga in 2014. The first coach to take a double-digit-seeded team to the Elite Eight since the 1990-91 Lamar Cardinals, and the only coach to do it twice, still has a lot to say about both teams’ historic runs.

Two sides of the same coin

With a 28-4 record on Selection Monday, the No. 11 seed was clearly well below what the WCC-champion Bulldogs deserved, Graves said. But with Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center already pre-selected to host the first two rounds of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, putting the “home” team there inclined the selection committee to downgrade its seed.

Not that that fazed the Zags.

“I always said I’d rather host,” Graves said. “Forget about the seed, are you kidding me?”

Well-known today for averaging over 5,600 fans a game, which last season was good for 12th in the country, the Bulldogs of 2010-11 were just beginning to hit those numbers. About 5,700 fans came to the first- and second-round games. For the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games at Spokane Arena, five minutes from campus, that figure jumped above 10,000.

“[Playing at home] is a huge advantage, because we get such great crowd support,” Graves said. “We knew it would be at a fever pitch. Absolutely, that helped us. There’s no question about that.”

But at the core of Gonzaga’s success was its talented veteran lineup, headlined by All-American senior point guard Courtney Vandersloot. Fellow senior Janelle Bekkering was having the most effective (and healthiest) season of her career, while juniors Kayla Standish’s and Katelan Redmon’s stellar careers led them to become (still) the only two Gonzaga players to be selected in the same WNBA Draft.

On the other hand, the Ducks and their freshmen-led roster were just hoping to hear their name called on Selection Monday in 2017. At 20-13, the saving grace for the team that finished below .500 in conference play was perhaps their surprise run to the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, where they fell to Stanford.

“I think in ’17 we were just kind of glad to be in [the NCAA Tournament],” Graves said.

Oregon truly was a youth-driven team. Freshman breakout star Sabrina Ionescu was the program’s best-ever recruit, her classmate Hebard led the team in scoring and rebounding and sophomore Cazorla — now in the WNBA — was a consistently dominant presence on both sides of the ball.

“[Gonzaga] was an experienced team,” Graves said. “[Oregon] was a bunch of freshmen and young kids, first time in the tournament, so we didn’t really know what the hell we were doing, to be honest with you.”

But when the young Ducks started winning games, the country took notice — including the sport’s biggest names.

“Geno [Auriemma] had the greatest quote,” Graves said. “He goes, you know, ‘These guys don’t know that this is supposed to be hard.’

Where Gonzaga’s victories were the result of years of hard work together, Oregon’s showed the type of talent that the program could attract, and what it meant for the team’s future — even as the particulars of that future were coming to light right before their eyes.

“You know, I think we expected to win in 2011,” Graves said. “But it was just a, ‘Hey, what do we have to lose?’ kind of attitude in ’17. Even though I think we believed in ourselves, I don’t think anybody, including our players, would have thought we were gonna win three games.”

Now, that type of performance is certainly an expectation.

“We want to build what UConn has,” junior Lexi Bando said after the Ducks’ 2017 Elite Eight loss to the Huskies. “We put Oregon on the map by our run in the tournament. Now a lot of people know — ‘Okay. Oregon basketball. They’re the real deal.’”

‘Complete gamers’

A little over five years separates the end of Vandersloot’s college career and the beginning of Ionescu’s. But sometimes, it feels like not much else does.

“The one similarity [between the two Elite Eight runs] is a tremendous floor leader in Sabrina and Courtney,” Graves said.

Vandersloot was the first player in NCAA Division I history — men or women — to reach 2,000 points and 1,000 assists. Ionescu is on pace to be the second player to reach that milestone (with 1,000 rebounds as well, for good measure). Both are Nancy Lieberman Award winners — Vandersloot got it once, while Ionescu is going for three in a row. And while Vandersloot went No. 3 overall in the 2011 WNBA Draft, Ionescu has essentially had the No. 1 overall pick wrapped up since she was a junior.

Both also caught fire during their respective first Elite Eight runs.

“[Vandersloot] just kind of got on a roll, and so did Sabrina,” Graves said. “And I think players like that, that have that kind of confidence, as well as game, it just starts to snowball. And they feel like they’re invincible.”

BRIDGEPORT, CONNECTICUT- MARCH 25: Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the Oregon Ducks drives to the basket defended by Kia Nurse #11 of the Connecticut Huskies during the UConn Huskies Vs Oregon Ducks, NCAA Women’s Division 1 Basketball Championship game on March 27th, 2017 at the Webster Bank Arena, Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Against Iowa, Vandersloot scored a career-high 34 points. When UCLA opted to foul her, she still managed 29 points — thanks to a 15-of-17 performance from the free throw line — and 17 assists, one off the NCAA Tournament record. She had another 29-point game in the Sweet Sixteen, then tallied 25 points and nine assists in her final collegiate game. Not only did the run increase her season points-per-game average by over a point, but she also passed 2,000 career points in the second round.

Ionescu also scored above her average during the tournament, highlighted by a game-high 21 points in the Sweet Sixteen against Maryland. It was a game that Oregon had well in hand early, the 77-63 final score testament to the Ducks’ maturity in spite of their youth.

The age difference at the time of their respective runs notwithstanding, Graves still found commonalities between how Vandersloot and Ionescu took over games.

“I think great confidence, number one, great confidence in themselves and then great confidence in them from their teammates,” he said. “I think just two players that were complete gamers. You know, they live for those kind of moments and those kind of games.”

And, looking back, he doesn’t take any of it for granted.

“Thank goodness they’ve carried me for eight total years of my college career,” Graves said with a laugh. “I think it’s really special. I’m really proud of it.”

‘This is why you do it’

If Hebard’s shot against Temple was the beginning of something great for Oregon, there was one moment with Vandersloot that represented the near-culmination of one of the greatest careers in college basketball.

“The moment after we had beaten Louisville to go to the Elite Eight, you know, when Courtney came running off the court, jumped into my arms and we hugged and it was like, the front-page picture in the paper the next day,” Graves said. “That hug, that moment right there, the team had all left the floor, she was being interviewed on the far end by ESPN after the game and I stayed out of the court and waited for her. That’s the moment that I’ll cherish for the rest of my career and the rest of my life.

“You know, I carried that picture with me for several years after, just as a reminder: This is why you do it. You see her face and that’s true happiness. True, true joy.”

Since that season, Gonzaga has gone back to the Sweet Sixteen twice — once with Graves in 2012, and once in 2015 with new head coach Lisa Fortier. It’s had four players taken in the WNBA Draft since Vandersloot, and even more invited to preseason training camps. Truly, still, a program on the rise.

But the program simply wouldn’t be what it is today without its star point guard.

“An icon,” Graves said. “I mean, one of the greatest to ever do it.”

His feelings haven’t changed in almost nine years. Back then, after the Stanford loss that ended Gonzaga’s magical run, Graves had even more to say about Vandersloot’s lasting impression on the program.

“Listen, we have a great basketball team, we had a phenomenal season,” he said. “You saw all the people that were here and the people that have been following us, make no mistake about it, they’re Gonzaga fans. But Courtney Vandersloot brought these people here, and she deserves just a ton of credit for that. She has made Gonzaga women’s basketball cool. And something that people notice and love.”

With the Zags still a consistent national presence so many years later, and the Ducks real contenders for a national title this season, the message is clear: Leave it to the Cinderellas to create their own legacies.

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