Joy and pain: A look back at Ducks women's basketball

Ruthy Hebard and Sabrina Ionescu with teammates

For fans for Oregon women’s basketball, the 2019-20 season will be remembered for a talented and relentless team that dominated opponents, a record-smashing playmaker who became the face of college basketball, and an abrupt end to what well could have been a championship run.

The coronavirus-caused cancellation of the NCAA Tournament was a bitter pill for Oregon fans, to say nothing of the players and coaches.

As coach Kelly Graves said on Twitter: “It appears our ‘unfinished business’ will remain just that. Disappointed but I completely understand. I love & I hurt for my team.”

This season and this team had a distinct championship feel about it. After making the Final Four last season, the 2019-20 Ducks were a juggernaut of a team, led by the Big Three — Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally — and deep, powerful supporting cast.

Here’s a look back at a season that ended too soon, but one that provided fans with so many memorable moments.

Toppling a giant

Expectations were sky high for this team at the start of the season, but even Graves downplayed the notion they could beat the U.S. Women’s National Team, whose roster included all-time greats Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, in a Nov. 9 exhibition.

“If we feel like we should win the game or something, we’re delusional,” he said. “These guys are really good.”

But then, so was Oregon, then ranked No. 1 in the country. Before 11,530 fans at at Matthew Knight Arena, the Ducks stunned Team USA, 93-86. No college team had beaten the national team in 20 years.

Down by four at halftime, the Ducks battled back in the third quarter, and took control in the fourth. Ionescu finished with 30 points, including 20 in the third quarter, while Sabally scored 25 points, including consecutive three-pointers in the fourth that helped clinch the win.

A Civil War sweep, and tragedy

Oregon vs. Oregon State is always a heated rivalry, no matter the sport, but the women’s basketball games have become especially intense as both teams have become national powers. By a quirk of Pac-12 scheduling, the teams, each ranked in the top 10, played twice in three days in late January, both before loud, packed arenas in Eugene and Corvallis.

The Ducks won the opener at home, 76-64, before a sellout crowd of 12,364. Two days later, the Ducks completed the Civil War sweep, 66-57, winning in Corvallis for the first time since 2010.

But the Corvallis game was played under a pall of grief — less than two hours before tipoff, news broke that NBA great Kobe Bryant, one of his daughters and eight others died in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles.

Bryant was a friend and mentor to Ionescu, and Ionescu was crushed by the news. She skipped pregame warmups and came out to the court minutes before tipoff. Fighting back tears during a moment of silence for Bryant, Ionescu led the team to victory with 19 points while playing all 40 minutes.

“This season’s for him,” an emotional Ionescu told ESPN after the game.

Payback time

The last time Oregon played Connecticut, it was in the Elite Eight of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, when Ionescu and Hebard were freshmen. The Huskies trounced the Ducks, 90-52.

UConn has been a dominant program in women’s basketball since the early 1990s, winning 11 NCAA titles and putting together winning streaks of 111 and 90 games.

When Oregon traveled to Storrs, Conn., in early February, the Ducks were ranked No. 3 and the Huskies No. 4. But Oregon controlled the game and routed UConn, 74-56, handing the Huskies their worst home loss in Gampel Pavilion since it opened in 1990, and the first since 2013. Ruthy Hebard led the way with 24 points and 12 rebounds, while all five starters scored in double figures.

Sabrina’s big day

Monday, Feb. 24, was a long, emotional and momentous day for Sabrina Ionescu. It began in Los Angeles, where she spoke at the memorial for Kobe Bryant in front of 20,000 mourners at the Staples Center and a national television audience.

It ended in Palo Alto, where she led Oregon to victory over Stanford, 74-66, while becoming the first college basketball player to score 2,000 points, dish 1,000 assists and grab 1,000 rebounds in a career. All while recording her record-extending 26th triple double, with 21 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists, and all while battling a stomach bug.

A pair of Pac-12 titles

In late February, Oregon downed Washington State, 88-57, before a sellout crowd at Matthew Knight Arena and in so doing clinched its third straight Pac-12 regular season conference title.

Just over a week later, the Ducks were cutting down the nets again after defeating Stanford, 89-56, to win the Pac-12 conference tournament in Las Vegas.

"We validated a very hard-fought, two-month grind — Pac-12 regular-season champions, and now we're tournament champions," UO coach Kelly Graves said. "We don't have to share it with anybody."

The end of the line

What the Ducks didn’t know at the time was that their Pac-12 Tournament triumph would mark the end of their season. Less than a week later, as the Ducks prepared for March Madness, the NCAA canceled its tournaments, bringing the Ducks’ dominant run to a premature end.

The Ducks finished 31-2, including 15-0 at home, and ended the season on a 19-game win streak with an average margin of victory of 26 points.

Ionescu was the face not just of the program but all of college basketball with her fierce play, record-setting ways and prominent admirers, including LeBron James and Steph Curry. She appeared on the front sports pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, and recently was the subject of an ESPN cover story.

Graves said he supported the NCAA’s decision to shut things down, but ruefully noted the end of a special season.

"This will never happen again," he said. “There won't be another group like this, ever. We might have equally impressive teams, but what this group did to capture the imagination and the attention and the love of a new fan base was incredible."

By Tim Christie, University Communications