Ducks women make history, with high hopes for more to come

Duck women celebrate

As the final minutes ticked off and the Ducks were en route to a thrilling win over Mississippi State, the historical significance of what the women’s basketball team was about to accomplish was not lost on Becky Sisley.

After two years of seeing their NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament come to an end in the Elite Eight, the Ducks on Sunday advanced to the Final Four for the first time in program history with an 88-84 win in Portland.

“This is probably one of, maybe the most, important women’s athletic accomplishments,” said Sisley, who started working at the university in 1965 and went on to coach basketball, field hockey and softball before becoming the university’s first women’s athletics director.

In other words, Sisley knows how much this means.

Oregon now will face top-seeded Baylor on Friday in Tampa Bay in a semifinal game, with the winner playing for the championship on Sunday. A watch party will be held at Matt Knight Arena on Friday, with doors opening at 3:30 p.m. Alumni groups around the country will be holding additional watch parties (see the Related Links list).

This is just the latest step in a program coach Kelly Graves has steadily rebuilt since his arrival on campus in 2014. Led by junior all-American Sabrina Ionescu and joined by fellow starters Erin Boley, Ruthy Hebard, Satou Sabally and Maite Cazorla, the Ducks have been on a flight plan with a solidly upward trajectory.

The program had a major breakthrough in the Ducks’ amazing 2016-17 campaign, when Oregon reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. With three true freshmen starting, the No. 11-seed Ducks shocked the college basketball world by reaching the program’s first-ever Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. 

Becky Sisley coachingLast year, the Ducks continued their progression, winning their third-ever Pac-12 regular season championship and first Pac-12 Tournament title in program history. The Ducks notched a program-record 33-5 season, including a record 16-2 in league play.

Oregon earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, hosted games in Eugene for the first time since 2000 and reached the Elite Eight for a second straight season before falling to eventual national champion and No. 1 seed Notre Dame.

And more fans have continued to embrace the team along the way. One only has to look to the first Civil War game Graves coached in 2015, when roughly 2,000 of the faithful were on hand, to this year’s edition featuring a sold-out and raucous Matt Knight Arena.

Kathie Stanley, a season-ticket holder and associate vice president and chief of staff in the Division of Student Life, recalled some of the contests she’s attended over the past 20-plus years.

“You could walk into a game in and sit behind the bench,” she said.

All along, a strong core of fans stuck around, and now it’s building. They not only have a high IQ for the sport but you can also go to a game and pick up a sense of community, Stanley said.

“It’s like a family feeling,” she said. “It’s great to see new fans come along. They’re getting to see such a high level of basketball. And there’s something special about a team that has such great coaches; smart, dedicated players; great recruiting. When they put it all together like this team has, it’s special.”

Scott Roth, president of the student fan group known as the Pit Crew, has seen student interest surge in the four years he’s been on campus. He recalls maybe a couple dozen students attending games who were really into the action that first season he was on campus.

The Duck women's basketball team

Fast forward to this year’s Civil War or the home game against Mississippi State when Matt Knight Arena was going bananas and the Pit Crew was in full flight. They set the student attendance record this season, and the overall environment is a far cry from Roth’s freshman year.

“It’s not just the students, but the community, too,” said Roth, a senior business major.

Indeed, the games are well-attended by everyone from toddlers to those who have been coming since Elwin Heiny was coaching the team in the 1970s. They linger after the final horn has sounded to meet the players and get autographs and photos.

The games have a reputation for a congenial feel, and that in large part comes from Graves, said Karen Hyatt, the director for intergovernmental relations with University Advancement and UO women’s basketball fan since the mid-1990s.

“He builds community with the team and crowd,” she said. “It was so great to see, at the end of Sunday’s game, the players running onto the floor, he and coaching staff hugging each other. He creates a team atmosphere, which includes the whole crowd.”

The program has come a long way from when Sisley coached them in Gerlinger Gymnasium in 1966.

The team didn’t get cool new shoes. Heck, they didn’t even really have uniforms. They just used pinnies they wore over their shirts.

Fans watched from a set of bleachers in Gerlinger’s balcony. Maybe 20 would show up, usually friends and roommates, Sisley recalled.

Thinking back to those early days, long before Title IX, Sisley said Sunday’s victory and a berth in a Final Four is so important because it’s an accomplishment anyone can appreciate. It transcends gender.

“It’s because the men have the same thing: It’s the NCAA Final Four. It’s as well known. And this is like we made the grade to get into that elite group.”

By Jim Murez, University Communications