Sabrina Ionescu slapping her teammates hands as she is introducted before the game

The Gospel of Sab
Story by Damian Foley, assist from A.P. Moore
Photos by Eric Evans, Kelly Sopak, Julia Wagner, and Oregon Women's Basketball

The story of Sabrina Ionescu, as told by basketball legends Kobe Bryant and Diana Taurasi, her UO professors, and other fans of the best NCAA basketball player… ever?

Putting together a University of Oregon Mt. Rushmore could keep Ducks fans entertained—and debating each other—for hours.

We should know—we tried it. We asked fans on social media who they’d put on a UO Mt. Rushmore, and we received 71 different suggestions, including Nobel Prize winners Walter Brattain and William Murphy, television personality Ann Curry, polar explorer Ann Bancroft, authors Ken Kesey and Chuck Palahniuk, suffragette Esther Pohl Lovejoy, and TV show creator Stephen J. Cannell.

But a Mt. Rushmore can only fit four faces on it, and when the votes were tallied, four Ducks stood tall above the rest:

Marcus Mariota
Marcus Mariota
The only Heisman Trophy winner in UO history
Steve Prefontaine
Steve Prefontaine
The record-breaking distance running legend
Sabrina Ionescu
Sabrina Ionescu
The current UO graduate student
Phil Knight
Phil Knight
The runner who created a sneaker empire that revolutionized an industry

Yes, Sabrina Elaine Ionescu, who only earned her diploma in 2019, is considered by UO fans to be one of the four greatest Ducks ever, standing alongside such greats as Marcus Mariota, Steve Prefonatione, and the alumnus who co-founded Nike and made the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact possible.

 

Filling Her Trophy Case

Naismith Trophy Winner
(most outstanding player in women’s college basketball)

Two-time Wade Trophy winner
(national player of the year)

Two-time Wooden Award winner
(most outstanding player in women’s college basketball)

Three-time Nancy Lieberman Award winner
(nation’s top point guard)

National Player of the Year
((Associated Press, ESPN, USBWA)

Consider Sabrina's resume:

  • NCAA leader in career triple-doubles, with more than twice as many as the runner-up

  • Only player in NCAA history—male or female—with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists

  • During the 2019–20 season, ESPN created a web page just to track her accomplishments (and to help people pronounce her last name, though ESPN did make an error: it’s pronounced yo-NESS-coo, not YO-ness-coo)

  • Second player in history to earn unanimous AP national player of the year honors

  • First Naismith Trophy winner in UO history (most outstanding player in women’s college basketball)

  • Two-time Wade Trophy winner (national player of the year)

  • Two-time Wooden Award winner (most outstanding player in women’s college basketball)

  • Two-time Nancy Lieberman Award winner (nation’s top point guard)

  • UO’s all-time leader in points, assists, double-digit scoring games, and three-pointers

She’s firmly a member of the mononymous club, for people who are known by a single name. Every Duck knows Marcus, “Pre,” and Phil—and every Duck knows Sabrina. It’s little wonder that both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, two legends of the hardwood themselves, have called her the “GOAT”—the Greatest of All Time. When Kobe calls you the GOAT, the argument is over. The defense rests, even if Sabrina herself never does.

In four years, Sabrina has turned a WNIT participant into a juggernaut national title contender that handed UConn its worst home loss in Gampel Pavilion history and handed the US women’s national team just its second-ever loss against a collegiate team. Average attendance at Matthew Knight Arena has quadrupled. When Nike produced a No. 20 UO replica women’s basketball jersey—believed to be the first time they’ve ever done numbered apparel for a collegiate women’s sport—it sold out in a day. And that all happened while Sabrina was earning her degree in just three years.

 

Only player—male or female—in NCAA history with:

2,000+
points
1,000+
rebounds
1,000+
assists

But how did we get here, with the daughter of Romanian immigrants Dan Ionescu and Liliana Blaj—who fled their homeland after the Romanian Revolution and settled in the USA—growing from a gangly kid filled with unbridled energy into an icon who has turned her sport’s legends into unabashed fans?

To find out, we talked to the people who know her best: family, fans, and friends of the Duck who may just be the best collegiate women’s basketball player in history.

Note: Our interview with Kobe Bryant was conducted on January 21, just five days before Kobe, his daughter Gianna, and seven others—including the father, stepmother, and sister of former UO baseball player JJ Altobelli, BA ’13 (general social science)—died in a tragic helicopter crash. Kobe, who was close with Sabrina and spoke with her several times a week, was in fact the very first person to agree to be interviewed for this story.

 

The Timeline to Greatness

 
  • Early Life

    IN THE BEGINNING

    Sabrina and twin brother Eddy—a guard on the UO men’s basketball team—grew up playing basketball against older brother Andrei in the driveway of their home in Walnut Creek, California. After Andrei moved away to attend college, Sabrina and Eddy went to nearby Larkey Park to find new opponents. There, the wiry twins with a competitive streak as long as their scrawny arms, teamed up to take down unsuspecting adults, 10-year-olds beating grown men in a quest for the ultimate spoils: Slurpees.

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    We’d be at the park for hours on end, and would just play with whoever was there. That’s where her competitive nature and the charisma she carries on today comes from. For Sabrina and I, it was about trying to get better and work on the things we were trying to work on.

    Some guys would be like, ‘If you beat us, we’ll get you guys a Slurpee,’ because there was a 7-Eleven right down the street. We’d beat them in H-O-R-S-E, or two-on-two, three-on-three, and they’d just go and get us a Slurpee and come back.”

    —Eddy Ionescu, Sabrina's twin brother

     

    She was the hardest worker in practice, and there was never a time I had to ask her to do anything harder. That’s just not normal. Some kids who are hard workers, when they take days off, you don’t say anything to them because you know they’re putting in the time and are maybe just not feeling right today, so you give them a pass.

    But Sabrina was never that way—you always had to dial her back. I think I’ve broken at least three fingers working with her at a young age on how to steal a ball. She’s probably responsible for 90 percent of my injuries in coaching.”

    —Kelly Sopak, Sabrina’s coach from third grade until college

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  • June 19, 2016

    SIGNING IN SILENCE

    By Sabrina’s senior year at Miramonte High School, the unsuspecting adults at Larkey Park had been replaced by overmatched high schoolers in gyms worldwide. Under Sopak’s tutelage, Sabrina was gaining basketball smarts to accompany her raw talent and emerging work ethic. She also got stronger, adding 50 pounds of muscle after working out almost daily with Miramonte’s football team.

    Sabrina Ionescu with Kelly Sopak
    Sabrina with Kelly Sopak

    She made Team USA’s U16 and U17 teams, winning U16 gold in Mexico and U17 gold in the Czech Republic, and was named the ALL-USA Girls Basketball Player of the Year and MVP of the McDonald’s All-America game. The No. 4 recruit in the nation, such legendary programs as UConn and Duke had been recruiting her since her freshman year.

    Also recruiting her? Oregon, which hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2005. The Ducks were nowhere near the level of the 11-time national champion Huskies, having only ever won five games in the entirety of the NCAA Tournament. But, just two years earlier, they had lured head coach Kelly Graves away from Gonzaga, where he had led the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight.

    The UO also had an ace up its sleeve in the form of assistant coach Mark Campbell, who had a close relationship with Sabrina. Campbell was the first college coach to see her play, and had been recruiting her heavily since she was in seventh grade.

    The first day of the 2016 signing period came and went without Sabrina committing to a university. As did the entire first month. And the second month. Then, on June 19, she simply appeared at Matthew Knight Arena, produced her national letter of intent, and signed it for Graves. No press conference. No fanfare. Just an incoming freshman ready to get to work.

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    I think it was on the last day when she decided to come to Oregon. It was actually a couple of hours before she had to make a decision. She got in the car with dad and said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to go up to Eugene.’ That’s kind of how she made her decision.”

    —Eddy Ionescu, Sabrina's twin brother

     

    It was the day before summer school started. There was a rule—the NCAA has since amended it—that if you wanted to go on a foreign tour with a team—and we had one scheduled for later that summer—then you had to be in summer school. It was either she enrolled then or didn’t come on the trip with us.

    We didn’t know what she was going to do. She waited until the last minute, and just came up I-5. She let the coaching staff in on it. They called me at the house and said, ‘Let’s meet at the arena.’ I said, ‘Okay,’ [came to the arena], and then all of a sudden, I hear her in the back. I’m glad she made the decision she did. We didn’t know 100 percent; we were just hopeful.”

    —Kelly Graves, Oregon women's basketball head coach

     

    The UO coaching staff never missed one of our games, and any other college coach was going to be compared to Mark Campbell. Oregon was a losing program, and trust me when I say this, that was brought up in every single conversation with every other school, other than Oregon State.

    Every other program that was in the running harped on Oregon being a losing program, and what a mistake signing for them would be. And that ended up being probably the biggest ‘pro’ for her. She would get to blaze her own path; she wouldn’t be following in anybody’s footsteps.”

    —Kelly Sopak, Sabrina’s coach from third grade until college

    Close quotation mark

  • November 27, 2016

    FIRST OF MANY

    Sabrina picked up the speed and the tactical nuances of the college game quickly, leading the Ducks in scoring in her second game and notching her first 20-point outing in her third.

    Her seventh game, though, on November 27, was where the legend of Sabrina really began: 11 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists in a win over San Jose State. It was Sabrina’s first triple-double, and the UO’s first since Stefanie Kasperski had one against Arizona State in 1988, nine years before Sabrina was born.

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    She had played for USA basketball, she had played on the Nike YBL circuit, so she was playing against other big-time players. It wasn’t a huge level jump for her.”

    —Kelly Graves, Oregon women's basketball head coach

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    While Kasperski’s first triple-double was also her last, Sabrina was just getting started.

  • February 10, 2017

    BYE BYE, BEV

    Bev Smith is one of the most legendary figures in UO athletics history: a Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer, a member of the Pac-12 women’s basketball all-century team, and the only UO women’s basketball player to have her jersey number retired. Until the 2016–17 season, she was also the UO’s career leader in triple-doubles, with three.

    In a win over No. 15 UCLA, three months into her freshman season, Sabrina picked up her fourth triple-double, dropping 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists on the Bruins. It took Smith 110 games to set the UO record; it took Sabrina just 25 to break it.

    Sabrina and the Ducks celebrate their win over UCLA
    Sabrina and the Ducks celebrate their win over No. 15 UCLA

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    “You could see her potential, even as a freshman. You could see from the get-go that there was something special there. Not just her skill and her talent, but with her competitive focus and intensity when she hits the floor, either in practice or in games.

    “She has this overriding ability to focus on a different standard that allows her game to rise up, and allows her team to rise up quite regularly.

    “I watched her play that first year and was very impressed. I admired her intensity and competitiveness. I thought, ‘I recognize that, I was a little bit like that.’ She has this intense, focused look, that says, ‘You’re going to have to go through me if you want to beat my team.’ That left quite an impression on me.”

    —Bev Smith, University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame

    Close quotation mark

  • December 20, 2018

    HISTORY ON THE HARDWOOD

    Sabrina’s relentless pursuit of excellence meant records kept tumbling. After she broke the UO career mark as a freshman, she took down the NCAA women’s mark as a sophomore.

    She began her junior season with 10 triple-doubles to her name, just two shy of the overall NCAA record of 12, set by former BYU point guard Kyle Collinsworth. Her 11th came against Alaska Fairbanks; she then tied Collinsworth’s record against Buffalo. Then came the Air Force Academy.

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    What stood out to us [when scouting Sabrina] was how well rounded of a player she was. She made players around her better. It was like, ‘Hey, don’t be so distracted by her, because while you’re so distracted by her, she’s going to be dishing it off to someone else to score.’

    Our team really emphasized defense, and making people uncomfortable. Because she’s such a good player and is so composed, our goal was to mess with the ball and take her out of her rhythm, stay in front of the ball enough to make her want to give the ball up.””

    —Venessannah Itugbu, former Air Force guard and 2018-19 Falcons Team MVP

    Close quotation mark

    Sabrina Ionescu and Lydia Giomi playing defense against Venessannah Itugbu
    Sabrina and Lydia Giomi guarding Air Force's Venessannah Itugbu

    With seven minutes left, Sabrina had 17 points, 12 assists, and nine rebounds. Itugbu drove the lane, but found her path to the rim blocked by forward Lydia Giomi. Itugbu attempted an off-balance layup, and her shot hit the backboard and didn’t go in.

    The ball fell to Sabrina, who scooped it up and began calmly dribbling back down the court. While the crowd leapt to its feet to cheer the breaking of the NCAA record, Sabrina nonchalantly passed to Erin Boley, who sank an open three-pointer.

    open quotation mark

    Once it happened, the crowd was so loud, it was booming in there. I remember how crazy it got when they announced she’d broken the record.”

    —Venessannah Itugbu, former Air Force guard and 2018-19 Falcons Team MVP

     

    “What I was most impressed by was her ‘business as usual’ attitude, of, ‘Yeah, that’s fine, but we’ve still got a game to play here and it’s time to move on.’ That’s a reflection of her character, and her understanding that yes, she made history—or herstory—but the most important thing is the game, the moment, the next possession. And that’s what keeps her grounded and humble.”

    —Bev Smith, University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame

     

    I knew she was getting close. I heard on Twitter—a lot of people were tagging me. I was aware. I’m happy for her. I think it’s amazing. No record is ever going to stay. I think it’s cool, and whenever I see a player like her who plays the right way and can do so many different things, it’s fun to watch. I have a high level of respect for what she’s been able to do.”

    —Kyle Collinsworth, current teammate of former UO forward Paul White with the Salt Lake City Stars in the NBA G League

    Close quotation mark

    It took Ionescu less than 24 hours to begin pulling away from Collinsworth. She notched her 14th career triple-double the very next day, in a win over UC-Irvine.

  • January 11, 2019

    KOBE IN THE CROWD

    Kobe and Gianna Bryant with the University of Oregon women's basketball team
    The Oregon women's basketball team with Kobe and Gianna Bryant

    As the legend of Sabrina grew, she began to attract attention from the game’s biggest stars. Sitting courtside at the Galen Center to watch the visiting Ducks play USC in early 2019 was none other than self-professed Sabrina Ionescu fan Kobe Bryant.

    Yes, that Kobe Bryant.

    Eighteen-time NBA All-Star, five-time NBA champion, fourth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, Academy Award winner, and the only player to have two jersey numbers retired by the same NBA team Kobe Bryant, a shooting guard who can make a strong case for being on the NBA’s own Mt. Rushmore.

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    There’s a lot of players who, especially today, do all of these fancy ball handling drills and work on using a million different moves, none of which they’ll be able to actually do in a game. It was refreshing to watch Sabrina play, who just thought the game at a different level.

    She just reads the game. She’s not going to give you all these fancy dribbles that you don’t need. She understands angles, she understands defensive rotations, she understands where the next pass will come before that pass has even been made available. It was refreshing to see somebody play with such a high basketball IQ.

    Sabrina reads the hell out of (opponents). She’ll come off and she’ll be looking on the weak side, eyes always up, and she understands what those coverages are. She’s picking them apart, like a quarterback would.

    I haven’t seen somebody be able to approach the game the way that she approaches it on a collegiate level. The system that Oregon runs, and how she handles the ball and facilitates opportunities for her teammates, I haven’t seen that. Her competitive spirit and her toughness reminds me a lot of Diana (Taurasi).”

    —Kobe Bryant

    Close quotation mark

  • February 15, 2019

    FANS, FANS, AND A LOT MORE FANS

    Sabrina Ionescu signing a basketball for young Oregon fans
    Sabrina signing autographs for the fans

    The year before Sabrina signed with the Ducks, the UO women’s basketball team averaged 1,629 fans per game. Her freshman year? They averaged 2,595. That leaped to 4,255 her sophomore season, and 7,148 her junior campaign. On February 15, 2019, the team played in front of a school record 12,364 fans when the Ducks played Oregon State—it was just the second time in school history attendance had broken 10,000.

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    Look at what she’s done to the arena. It’s a packed house every night. We’re national news every time we play. She’s being interviewed live on SportsCenter, and there’s something in Bleacher Report, the New York Times, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine. Every week there’s another story on Sabrina. It’s crazy, and she handles it with such grace and poise and class.”

    —Kelly Graves, Oregon women's basketball head coach

     

    I told Mark Campbell, I said what I want is for Sabrina to be on the marquee out the front, and when I give my ticket to the ticket-taker, it has Sabrina’s picture on it, and I go and sit to watch Sabrina play and everyone is cheering for her. Big picture, that’s the program I wanted to be a part of.

    The last game I was at almost brought a tear to my eye: she was on the marquee, she may have been on the ticket stub, and the entire arena was wearing her jersey. I’d said that, but I didn’t think it would actually happen. I don’t know if it could’ve happened anywhere else.”

    —Kelly Sopak, Sabrina’s coach from third grade until college

     

    “She’s such an incredible ambassador for the game itself. The team is so approachable, that’s why people feel a part of their journey. And she’s very approachable and that trickles down. It’s contagious and infectious.

    “She’s obviously had really cool parenting and coaching along the way, and that’s helped keep her humble and still hungry. That fits in with Kobe and LeBron—it’s cool that they’re validating her as a player, but I don’t think she needs them in that regard. But it’s super cool that they’re paying attention to that and recognizing that.”

    —Bev Smith, University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame

    Close quotation mark

    10,000+
    Average home attendance in 2019-20

    During Sabrina’s senior season, the Ducks are averaging more than 10,000 fans per home game, and have the second-best attendance mark in the nation. Nine out of the 10 most-attended games in school history have come in the last two years. Oregon is also a draw away from Matt Knight Arena, too, and has become the marquee attraction for opposing fans and Ducks who want to cheer for their team on the road.

    UO cheerleaders on the court durig pre-game introductions at Matthew Knight Arena with filled stands
    A packed house at Matthew Knight Arena cheering on the Ducks

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    At the hotel at UConn, there was a man who had his young daughter with him. He recognized me outside the hotel, and said, ‘Coach, I just want you to know, we just drove seven hours because my daughter wants to see Sabrina play.

    When I introduce them, he’s crying—the dad’s crying. The little girl is in awe. When we’re on the road, the places are packed and we get by far the biggest crowds. Sometimes we double what they normally get, and a lot of them are Duck fans there to see Sabrina.

    After the Colorado game, a guy put his camera on her and did a time lapse video of every autograph, every picture that she took, for 28 minutes. It’s crazy what she does. Our [senior women’s administrator] Lisa Peterson was standing up trying to direct traffic, because it was just a swarm after the game—and this was on the road!”

    —Kelly Graves, Oregon women's basketball head coach

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  • April 4, 2019

    KOBE WEIGHS IN

    The Detail series on ESPN+ features sporting legends analyzing the games and players they love. Nick Saban broke down the run-pass option. Peyton Manning analyzed Drew Brees. Kobe—who had previously looked at Damian Lillard and Steph Curry’s games—turned his spotlight on Sabrina Ionescu.

    Detail - Kobe Bryant: Breaking Down Sabrina Ionescu

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    Because of what I saw at the SC game and how she processes the game, I thought it was important for another generation of players to be able to see how she thinks the game. Not just women, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about basketball players in general.

    When I say I haven’t seen a player think the game that way, that’s both male and female. It’s important for the next generation to see how you process and think through the game at the highest level. And hopefully ‘Sab’ would pick up a few things too.”

    —Kobe Bryant

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  • June 19, 2019

    SABRINA THE GRADUATE

    Sabrina Ionescu in her cap and gown in front of the O on the Lillis Business Complex

    Sabrina’s work ethic on the court is legendary—you don’t more than double the NCAA’s career triple-double record by taking plays off. But she is just as relentless in the classroom, and graduated from the UO in only three years.

    Less than two months after leading the Ducks to the Final Four as a junior, Sabrina Ionescu officially became Sabrina Ionescu, BA ’19 (general social science).

    Having already announced she was returning to the UO for a fourth season, she enrolled in the School of Journalism and Communication’s brand new Advertising and Brand Responsibility Master’s Program, and started studying branding while brushing up on blocking out.

    Sabrina Builds Her Brand as an SOJC Master's Student

    Three classroom photos of Sabrina Ionescu

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    The Sabrina you see on the court and in the postgame interviews is the Sabrina we see in class. She’s articulate, passionate, and very focused on the work she’s doing.

    The advertising and brand responsibility master’s program provided a way for her to connect several of her own passions—basketball and sports, of course, but also the importance of transcending her athletic ability to advocate for women’s sports and all women athletes in our society.

    In Week 4, I had a student come in and ask, ‘Do you know who Sabrina is? She’s the face of women’s basketball in the US.’ And I said, ‘Yes she is, and she’s also an important part of our program.’

    —Professor Kim Sheeran, director, Advertising and Brand Responsibility Program

     

    Sabrina was the most animated when we talked about the interplay between domestic laws here in the United States and international laws or issues. This is a challenging class, because it’s asking students to dig really deep and question many strongly held or inherent ideas they have about the world.

    I ask students to do that kind of soul searching, and it’s the brave students who ask more questions, because they’re doing that self-audit. Sabrina did that. When we did a lot of the domestic and international comparisons, she had a lot of questions and she was very curious.

    When I watch Sabrina play basketball, she’s very aggressive and very assertive. In the classroom she’s very relaxed and open and would dialogue with classmates. She was a very approachable, open person. A listener. Still a leader, people would often gravitate toward her in small groups.

    I could see her doing any number of things in law if she wanted to. She would find great success there. She was a fun student to have, and she’s an incredible player.”

    —Instructor Lindsay Massara, taught Sabrina and teammate Satou Sabally in LAW 415 (Human rights, law, and culture) in winter term 2019

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  • Summer 2019

    KOBE COACHES SAB

    After traveling to Los Angeles to receive the Wooden Award as the nation’s best female collegiate basketball player, Sabrina stayed in California to work out with Kobe at the Mamba Sports Academy.

    By now, Kobe was as much a friend as a mentor—the two spoke on the phone several times a week—and she honed her game with the NBA legend and also took time to coach his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and her teammates.

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    Sab came down and worked out with the girls on my team, and the workouts that we do don’t change, whether you’re 11 years old or you’re Sabrina. We went through mid-post footwork, went through jab step stuff, create your own shot, things of that nature.

    “I had a few girls from my team there, including my daughter. [Sabrina] was great with the kids, she was great as a competitor, and paid attention to every detail.

    With me, working on jab steps over and over is not so much the jab, but it’s the little things: being on your toe, the angle of the jab, timing, and things like that. She paid attention to all of that.

    “She’s a hungry learner. That’s a good way to describe her. She’s hungry to learn more and more and more and more. She’s not satisfied. She’s constantly looking for ways to get better and improve herself.

    —Kobe Bryant

    Close quotation mark

  • November 9, 2019

    BEATING THE BEST

    Fresh off the program’s first-ever Final Four appearance, the Ducks opened the 2019–20 season against the best opponent on the planet. The USA women’s national team, featuring such legends as WNBA all-time leading scorer, three-time WNBA champion, and four-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi, had only ever lost once to a collegiate team, a one-point loss to Pat Summitt’s Tennessee Lady Volunteers in 1999.

    Kelly Graves tried to temper expectations, saying it would be delusional to think preseason No. 1 Oregon had a chance to win. But the Ducks had a fire lit under them by Taurasi, who spoke to them the evening before the game and told them they shouldn’t let their Final Four run make them complacent.

    The student-athletes listened. Sabrina dropped 30 points on the national team, including an incredible 20 in the third quarter alone, and the Ducks ran away with a 93-86 win in front of 11,530 awed fans at Matthew Knight Arena.

    Sabrina throws her hands up in celebration at beating the USA women's national team
    Sabrina and the Ducks celebrate Oregon's win over the USA women's national team

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    Sabrina’s a kid who wants to compete, and you can see that every time she steps on the court. She wants to compete, she wants to play hard, and she doesn’t care who she plays against. That’s a trait that rubs off on your team and is pretty incredible.

    She has figured out a way to get these triple doubles so easily. It just shows you that she can do anything on the court. On any given day, she can hurt you in any way. When you talk about the great players, it’s not scoring, it’s not passing, it’s not rebounding; on any given night, it could be any one of those skills that beats you.”

    —Diana Taurasi, guard for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and the WNBA's all-time leading scorer

    Close quotation mark

  • Calendar icon with February 24 as the date
    February 24, 2020

    TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPH

    With the regular season winding down, a nationally televised February 24 game at No. 4 Stanford loomed large on the calendar. The win over the USA national team may have started the season on an encouraging note, but with three games left in the regular season, the Ducks were still battling the Cardinal for the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament.

    To add to the pressure, Sabrina was nine rebounds shy of becoming the first player in NCAA history—male or female—to score 2,000 points and record 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds.

    But Sabrina had more on her mind than just the Ducks. The morning of the game, she flew to Los Angeles and spoke in front of 20,000 mourners and a worldwide television audience at Kobe Bryant’s memorial service—on 2/24/20, no less, a date that represented Gianna’s, Kobe’s, and her jersey numbers.

    Sabrina joined Michael Jordan, Diana Taurasi, Beyoncé, and others in eulogizing the late legend, recalling how, when she met Kobe for the first time, he congratulated her on the Ducks’ win over the Trojans, but advised her to never settle, keep grinding, and control what you can.

    Sabrina Ionescu speaking at a podium in the Staples Center
    Sabrina speaking at the memorial service for Kobe and Gianna Bryant

    If anyone still foolishly doubted Sabrina’s unfathomable mental strength before the day began, they were left in no doubt by the time it ended. After the emotional service ended, Sabrina took a charter flight to Palo Alto to join the Ducks, and then put in a performance that would’ve made her mentor beam with pride.

    After missing the pregame shootaround while feeling sick with the flu, Sabrina took over once the game tipped off; she left her heavy heart on the bench, and ripped the Cardinal apart on the court. Her 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 12 assists, gave her a 26th career triple-double, clinched her place in history as the only 2k/1k/1k player ever, and led the Ducks to an eight-point win that locked up the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.

    Kobe had taught her to control what she could, and she controlled it like a master.

  • March 1, 2020

    SENIOR DAY

    The four Oregon seniors with flowers
    Ruthy Hebard, Satou Sabally, Sabrina Ionescu, and Minyon Moore

    Sabrina may be the best player in college basketball, but the Ducks are far from a one-player team. Forwards Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally are both projected to be top-five picks in April’s WNBA Draft, and each average more than 16 points per game.

    Hebard leads the team in blocks, rebounds, and shooting percentage, while Sabally, who is turning professional after her junior year, could have made a case for being the first overall player picked in the draft if it wasn’t for Sabrina.

    12,364 fans showed up to farewell Sabrina, Hebard, Sabally, and Minyon Moore on Senior Day, where tickets were being listed on the resale market for more than $800. The Ducks did not disappoint the sold-out crowd, trouncing the Washington Huskies 92-56 behind 24 points from Hebard, 20 from Sabally, 13 from Sabrina, and 11 from Moore.

    open quotation mark

    “Sabrina has a lot of great shooters around her. She’s got some scorers. Satou’s amazing.”

    —Kobe Bryant

    “A lot of people probably think Sabrina is easy to play with, but in my opinion, Sabrina’s intensity and competitiveness requires that you do the same as a teammate. That you can’t just be happy to be along for the ride because her intensity requires you to be ready and rise up to every single practice, or the standard of excellence will not be reached.

    “Don’t get me wrong, I think Sabrina’s teammates are completely dialed in, however, as a leader it’s not always easy, because you’re a good teammate but you’re pushing people all the time, and it can be lonely out there.

    “Sabrina has great character and yet, at times she’s a character. She’s a lot of fun off the floor which endears her to her teammates, but as soon as you step across the line, I sense everyone knows exactly what you need to do to rise up to the standards that we have set for ourselves.”

    —Bev Smith, University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame

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  • Empty bracket
    March 27–April 5, 2020

    MARCH MADNESS

    Sabrina cutting down the net
    Sabrina celebrating the Ducks first trip to the Final Four in 2019

    Sabrina wrapped up her senior season as the heart of a UO team that bore little resemblance to the one she joined out of Miramonte High School. In the decade prior to her signing, the Ducks were a combined 143-172, with just one conference tournament win and no NCAA Tournament appearances.

    Since then, they’ve gone 117-26, have won the Pac-12 regular season title each of the last three years, and are the 2018 and 2020 Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament champions.

    When Sabrina announced she was returning for her senior season, days after last year’s Final Four loss, she said the team had “unfinished business” and was building a program that was going to win national championships—starting hopefully, she added, with the 2020 one.

    The Ducks went 31-2 during the 2019-20 season, blew out No. 7 Stanford by 25 points in the Pac-12 tournament final, and were ranked No. 2 in the nation heading into the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. The greatest player in the game was set to play a regional on her home court, kicking off a March Madness march to the national championship game in New Orleans.

    Instead, she never left her apartment.

    On March 12, with the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic starting to spread within the USA, the NCAA announced it was canceling all winter and spring championships—including March Madness. There would be no “One shining Moment” moment for Sabrina, and her “unfinished business” would remain forever unfinished.

    open quotation mark

    “The attention from Kobe and LeBron is very flattering for her, but I sense that she has a different idea of validation for herself—and that different idea of validation is winning a national championship. The unfinished business that has been bandied about—she will always remain the undisputed GOAT, but winning a national championship would be special as the team’s success is where her heart begins to beat.”

    —Bev Smith, University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame

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  • April 17, 2020

    WHO’S GOT NEXT?

    Sabrina is a college graduate with numerous NCAA and UO records to her name. The scrawny 10-year-old who used to team up with Eddy to school people for Slurpees is now an all-time icon of the game. There are no unsuspecting opponents any more, just helpless ones who scout her every move only to get dominated anyway.

    What Kelly Sopak helped create, Kelly Graves unleashed upon the basketball world, a phenomenon capable of outthinking and outworking any opponent, a Terminator with a ponytail and a cheeky grin. 

    So, what’s left for her to conquer? The Women’s National Basketball Association. Due to coronavirus, much is unknown about what Sabrina’s rookie year will look like.

    The 2020 WNBA Draft is taking place online, without players, guests, or media present. The dates for training camp and the games themselves are entirely in the air, dependent on the USA slowing the spread of a deadly virus.

    What is known, though, is that when the draft gets underway on April 17, she won’t have long to wait to hear her name called and will likely have WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announcing “Sabrina Ionescu, University of Oregon” as the first overall pick shortly after the ESPN broadcast begins.

    open quotation mark

    The most pro-ready parts of her game are certainly her passing ability, her vision, and her feel. You have to see her in person—the way she puts certain spins on the ball, the way the ball comes off her fingertips when she passes, is elite and is something very few players in our league can really do.

    Her feel for the moment is something that few players at any level have: she knows when Satou needs to get going, she knows when Ruthy needs to get going, and she knows when it’s her time. Being able to manage a game like that is really important, especially as she comes to the next level in the WNBA.

    But the WNBA is a lot quicker and a lot more athletic than division one college basketball. These are the best 144 women’s players in the world. She’s going to have to learn to not pick up her dribble as much as she currently does, otherwise traps are going to come her way and that can lead to turnovers. She’s kept those down at Oregon, but at the next level, players are faster and longer and she’s going to need to adapt to that.”

    —WNBA Scout

     

    Sabrina’s going to impact the WNBA in a lot of ways. Her visibility, her popularity, and just the way that she can carry herself on the court and off the court is going to bring huge success to her and to our league in general.

    Sabrina’s so dynamic, with all of the things that she can do. But after watching film and playing against her, her ability to pass is what makes her the most dangerous player in college right now.

    She can score, she can rebound, she can set up the offense, but the minute you put a lot of attention on her she can hurt you with her passing. That’s an ability and a skill that will be there forever. That will make whatever team she’s on a threat.”

    —Diana Taurasi, guard for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and the WNBA's all-time leading scorer

     

    We knew she was going to be an impact player, but I don’t think anybody saw this coming. She was a good player, but now she’s become an icon, not just here at the university but in all of women’s basketball. She’s going to have to prove it in the pros, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an Air SI someday. They’ll make a shoe for her.”

    —Kelly Graves, Oregon women's basketball head coach

     

    The future is very bright, in terms of endorsements and marketability. I think she’ll be the No. 1 pick [in the WNBA Draft]. But she’s coming in with more awareness of who she is, with more of a brand established, than a lot of WNBA players have come in with in the past.

    What is it about her? I think one hypothesis is that male basketball fans are really interested in her and find her compelling and respect her game. She’s making a leap from a popular women’s basketball player, who is popular among fans who watch women’s sports, to a well-known athlete in mainstream sports fandom.

    She has the respect of people like Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry, and LeBron James, and that’s a stamp of credibility that says this woman is the real deal.”

    —Whitney Wagoner, director, Warsaw Sports Marketing Center

     

    It’s a lot to handle. What I’ve said is that those expectations are there for a reason. You don’t have to be anything different than who you are, because you being who you are has brought on these expectations, because that’s what you’re capable of. You don’t need to get in your own head about it and say, ‘I’ve got to live up to this or live up to that.’ Just be who you are.”

    —Kobe Bryant

    Close quotation mark

  • Early Life

    IN THE BEGINNING

    Sabrina and twin brother Eddy—a guard on the UO men’s basketball team—grew up playing basketball against older brother Andrei in the driveway of their home in Walnut Creek, California. After Andrei moved away to attend college, Sabrina and Eddy went to nearby Larkey Park to find new opponents. There, the wiry twins with a competitive streak as long as their scrawny arms, teamed up to take down unsuspecting adults, 10-year-olds beating grown men in a quest for the ultimate spoils: Slurpees.

    open quotation mark

    We’d be at the park for hours on end, and would just play with whoever was there. That’s where her competitive nature and the charisma she carries on today comes from. For Sabrina and I, it was about trying to get better and work on the things we were trying to work on.

    Some guys would be like, ‘If you beat us, we’ll get you guys a Slurpee,’ because there was a 7-Eleven right down the street. We’d beat them in H-O-R-S-E, or two-on-two, three-on-three, and they’d just go and get us a Slurpee and come back.”

    —Eddy Ionescu, Sabrina's twin brother

     

    She was the hardest worker in practice, and there was never a time I had to ask her to do anything harder. That’s just not normal. Some kids who are hard workers, when they take days off, you don’t say anything to them because you know they’re putting in the time and are maybe just not feeling right today, so you give them a pass.

    But Sabrina was never that way—you always had to dial her back. I think I’ve broken at least three fingers working with her at a young age on how to steal a ball. She’s probably responsible for 90 percent of my injuries in coaching.”

    —Kelly Sopak, Sabrina’s coach from third grade until college

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  • June 19, 2016

    SIGNING IN SILENCE

    By Sabrina’s senior year at Miramonte High School, the unsuspecting adults at Larkey Park had been replaced by overmatched high schoolers in gyms worldwide. Under Sopak’s tutelage, Sabrina was gaining basketball smarts to accompany her raw talent and emerging work ethic. She also got stronger, adding 50 pounds of muscle after working out almost daily with Miramonte’s football team.

    Sabrina Ionescu with Kelly Sopak
    Sabrina with Kelly Sopak

    She made Team USA’s U16 and U17 teams, winning U16 gold in Mexico and U17 gold in the Czech Republic, and was named the ALL-USA Girls Basketball Player of the Year and MVP of the McDonald’s All-America game. The No. 4 recruit in the nation, such legendary programs as UConn and Duke had been recruiting her since her freshman year.

    Also recruiting her? Oregon, which hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2005. The Ducks were nowhere near the level of the 11-time national champion Huskies, having only ever won five games in the entirety of the NCAA Tournament. But, just two years earlier, they had lured head coach Kelly Graves away from Gonzaga, where he had led the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight.

    The UO also had an ace up its sleeve in the form of assistant coach Mark Campbell, who had a close relationship with Sabrina. Campbell was the first college coach to see her play, and had been recruiting her heavily since she was in seventh grade.

    The first day of the 2016 signing period came and went without Sabrina committing to a university. As did the entire first month. And the second month. Then, on June 19, she simply appeared at Matthew Knight Arena, produced her national letter of intent, and signed it for Graves. No press conference. No fanfare. Just an incoming freshman ready to get to work.

    open quotation mark

    I think it was on the last day when she decided to come to Oregon. It was actually a couple of hours before she had to make a decision. She got in the car with dad and said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to go up to Eugene.’ That’s kind of how she made her decision.”

    —Eddy Ionescu, Sabrina's twin brother

     

    It was the day before summer school started. There was a rule—the NCAA has since amended it—that if you wanted to go on a foreign tour with a team—and we had one scheduled for later that summer—then you had to be in summer school. It was either she enrolled then or didn’t come on the trip with us.

    We didn’t know what she was going to do. She waited until the last minute, and just came up I-5. She let the coaching staff in on it. They called me at the house and said, ‘Let’s meet at the arena.’ I said, ‘Okay,’ [came to the arena], and then all of a sudden, I hear her in the back. I’m glad she made the decision she did. We didn’t know 100 percent; we were just hopeful.”

    —Kelly Graves, Oregon women's basketball head coach

     

    The UO coaching staff never missed one of our games, and any other college coach was going to be compared to Mark Campbell. Oregon was a losing program, and trust me when I say this, that was brought up in every single conversation with every other school, other than Oregon State.

    Every other program that was in the running harped on Oregon being a losing program, and what a mistake signing for them would be. And that ended up being probably the biggest ‘pro’ for her. She would get to blaze her own path; she wouldn’t be following in anybody’s footsteps.”

    —Kelly Sopak, Sabrina’s coach from third grade until college

    Close quotation mark

  • November 27, 2016

    FIRST OF MANY

    Sabrina picked up the speed and the tactical nuances of the college game quickly, leading the Ducks in scoring in her second game and notching her first 20-point outing in her third.

    Her seventh game, though, on November 27, was where the legend of Sabrina really began: 11 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists in a win over San Jose State. It was Sabrina’s first triple-double, and the UO’s first since Stefanie Kasperski had one against Arizona State in 1988, nine years before Sabrina was born.

    open quotation mark

    She had played for USA basketball, she had played on the Nike YBL circuit, so she was playing against other big-time players. It wasn’t a huge level jump for her.”

    —Kelly Graves, Oregon women's basketball head coach

    Close quotation mark

    While Kasperski’s first triple-double was also her last, Sabrina was just getting started.

  • February 10, 2017

    BYE BYE, BEV

    Bev Smith is one of the most legendary figures in UO athletics history: a Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer, a member of the Pac-12 women’s basketball all-century team, and the only UO women’s basketball player to have her jersey number retired. Until the 2016–17 season, she was also the UO’s career leader in triple-doubles, with three.

    In a win over No. 15 UCLA, three months into her freshman season, Sabrina picked up her fourth triple-double, dropping 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists on the Bruins. It took Smith 110 games to set the UO record; it took Sabrina just 25 to break it.

    Sabrina and the Ducks celebrate their win over UCLA
    Sabrina and the Ducks celebrate their win over No. 15 UCLA

    open quotation mark

    “You could see her potential, even as a freshman. You could see from the get-go that there was something special there. Not just her skill and her talent, but with her competitive focus and intensity when she hits the floor, either in practice or in games.

    “She has this overriding ability to focus on a different standard that allows her game to rise up, and allows her team to rise up quite regularly.

    “I watched her play that first year and was very impressed. I admired her intensity and competitiveness. I thought, ‘I recognize that, I was a little bit like that.’ She has this intense, focused look, that says, ‘You’re going to have to go through me if you want to beat my team.’ That left quite an impression on me.”

    —Bev Smith, University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame

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  • December 20, 2018

    HISTORY ON THE HARDWOOD

    Sabrina’s relentless pursuit of excellence meant records kept tumbling. After she broke the UO career mark as a freshman, she took down the NCAA women’s mark as a sophomore.

    She began her junior season with 10 triple-doubles to her name, just two shy of the overall NCAA record of 12, set by former BYU point guard Kyle Collinsworth. Her 11th came against Alaska Fairbanks; she then tied Collinsworth’s record against Buffalo. Then came the Air Force Academy.

    open quotation mark

    What stood out to us [when scouting Sabrina] was how well rounded of a player she was. She made players around her better. It was like, ‘Hey, don’t be so distracted by her, because while you’re so distracted by her, she’s going to be dishing it off to someone else to score.’

    Our team really emphasized defense, and making people uncomfortable. Because she’s such a good player and is so composed, our goal was to mess with the ball and take her out of her rhythm, stay in front of the ball enough to make her want to give the ball up.””

    —Venessannah Itugbu, former Air Force guard and 2018-19 Falcons Team MVP

    Close quotation mark

    Sabrina Ionescu and Lydia Giomi playing defense against Venessannah Itugbu
    Sabrina and Lydia Giomi guarding Air Force's Venessannah Itugbu

    With seven minutes left, Sabrina had 17 points, 12 assists, and nine rebounds. Itugbu drove the lane, but found her path to the rim blocked by forward Lydia Giomi. Itugbu attempted an off-balance layup, and her shot hit the backboard and didn’t go in.

    The ball fell to Sabrina, who scooped it up and began calmly dribbling back down the court. While the crowd leapt to its feet to cheer the breaking of the NCAA record, Sabrina nonchalantly passed to Erin Boley, who sank an open three-pointer.

    open quotation mark

    “Once it happened, the crowd was so loud, it was booming in there. I remember how crazy it got when they announced she’d broken the record.”

    —Venessannah Itugbu, former Air Force guard and 2018-19 Falcons Team MVP

     

    “What I was most impressed by was her ‘business as usual’ attitude, of, ‘Yeah, that’s fine, but we’ve still got a game to play here and it’s time to move on.’ That’s a reflection of her character, and her understanding that yes, she made history—or herstory—but the most important thing is the game, the moment, the next possession. And that’s what keeps her grounded and humble.”

    —Bev Smith, University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame

     

    I knew she was getting close. I heard on Twitter—a lot of people were tagging me. I was aware. I’m happy for her. I think it’s amazing. No record is ever going to stay. I think it’s cool, and whenever I see a player like her who plays the right way and can do so many different things, it’s fun to watch. I have a high level of respect for what she’s been able to do.”

    —Kyle Collinsworth, current teammate of former UO forward Paul White with the Salt Lake City Stars in the NBA G League

    Close quotation mark

    It took Ionescu less than 24 hours to begin pulling away from Collinsworth. She notched her 14th career triple-double the very next day, in a win over UC-Irvine.

  • January 11, 2019

    KOBE IN THE CROWD

    Kobe and Gianna Bryant with the University of Oregon women's basketball team
    The Oregon women's basketball team with Kobe and Gianna Bryant

    As the legend of Sabrina grew, she began to attract attention from the game’s biggest stars. Sitting courtside at the Galen Center to watch the visiting Ducks play USC in early 2019 was none other than self-professed Sabrina Ionescu fan Kobe Bryant.

    Yes, that Kobe Bryant.

    Eighteen-time NBA All-Star, five-time NBA champion, fourth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, Academy Award winner, and the only player to have two jersey numbers retired by the same NBA team Kobe Bryant, a shooting guard who can make a strong case for being on the NBA’s own Mt. Rushmore.

    open quotation mark

    There’s a lot of players who, especially today, do all of these fancy ball handling drills and work on using a million different moves, none of which they’ll be able to actually do in a game. It was refreshing to watch Sabrina play, who just thought the game at a different level.

    She just reads the game. She’s not going to give you all these fancy dribbles that you don’t need. She understands angles, she understands defensive rotations, she understands where the next pass will come before that pass has even been made available. It was refreshing to see somebody play with such a high basketball IQ.

    Sabrina reads the hell out of (opponents). She’ll come off and she’ll be looking on the weak side, eyes always up, and she understands what those coverages are. She’s picking them apart, like a quarterback would.

    I haven’t seen somebody be able to approach the game the way that she approaches it on a collegiate level. The system that Oregon runs, and how she handles the ball and facilitates opportunities for her teammates, I haven’t seen that. Her competitive spirit and her toughness reminds me a lot of Diana (Taurasi).”

    —Kobe Bryant

    Close quotation mark

  • February 15, 2019

    FANS, FANS, AND A LOT MORE FANS

    Sabrina Ionescu signing a basketball for young Oregon fans
    Sabrina signing autographs for the fans

    The year before Sabrina signed with the Ducks, the UO women’s basketball team averaged 1,629 fans per game. Her freshman year? They averaged 2,595. That leaped to 4,255 her sophomore season, and 7,148 her junior campaign. On February 15, 2019, the team played in front of a school record 12,364 fans when the Ducks played Oregon State—it was just the second time in school history attendance had broken 10,000.

    open quotation mark

    Look at what she’s done to the arena. It’s a packed house every night. We’re national news every time we play. She’s being interviewed live on SportsCenter, and there’s something in Bleacher Report, the New York Times, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine. Every week there’s another story on Sabrina. It’s crazy, and she handles it with such grace and poise and class.”

    —Kelly Graves, Oregon women's basketball head coach

     

    I told Mark Campbell, I said what I want is for Sabrina to be on the marquee out the front, and when I give my ticket to the ticket-taker, it has Sabrina’s picture on it, and I go and sit to watch Sabrina play and everyone is cheering for her. Big picture, that’s the program I wanted to be a part of.

    The last game I was at almost brought a tear to my eye: she was on the marquee, she may have been on the ticket stub, and the entire arena was wearing her jersey. I’d said that, but I didn’t think it would actually happen. I don’t know if it could’ve happened anywhere else.”

    —Kelly Sopak, Sabrina’s coach from third grade until college

     

    “She’s such an incredible ambassador for the game itself. The team is so approachable, that’s why people feel a part of their journey. And she’s very approachable and that trickles down. It’s contagious and infectious.

    “She’s obviously had really cool parenting and coaching along the way, and that’s helped keep her humble and still hungry. That fits in with Kobe and LeBron—it’s cool that they’re validating her as a player, but I don’t think she needs them in that regard. But it’s super cool that they’re paying attention to that and recognizing that.”

    —Bev Smith, University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame

    Close quotation mark

    10,000+
    Average home attendance in 2019-20

    During Sabrina’s senior season, the Ducks are averaging more than 10,000 fans per home game, and have the second-best attendance mark in the nation. Nine out of the 10 most-attended games in school history have come in the last two years. Oregon is also a draw away from Matt Knight Arena, too, and has become the marquee attraction for opposing fans and Ducks who want to cheer for their team on the road.

    UO cheerleaders on the court durig pre-game introductions at Matthew Knight Arena with filled stands
    A packed house at Matthew Knight Arena cheering on the Ducks

    open quotation mark

    At the hotel at UConn, there was a man who had his young daughter with him. He recognized me outside the hotel, and said, ‘Coach, I just want you to know, we just drove seven hours because my daughter wants to see Sabrina play.

    When I introduce them, he’s crying—the dad’s crying. The little girl is in awe. When we’re on the road, the places are packed and we get by far the biggest crowds. Sometimes we double what they normally get, and a lot of them are Duck fans there to see Sabrina.

    After the Colorado game, a guy put his camera on her and did a time lapse video of every autograph, every picture that she took, for 28 minutes. It’s crazy what she does. Our [senior women’s administrator] Lisa Peterson was standing up trying to direct traffic, because it was just a swarm after the game—and this was on the road!”

    —Kelly Graves, Oregon women's basketball head coach

    Close quotation mark

  • April 4, 2019

    KOBE WEIGHS IN

    The Detail series on ESPN+ features sporting legends analyzing the games and players they love. Nick Saban broke down the run-pass option. Peyton Manning analyzed Drew Brees. Kobe—who had previously looked at Damian Lillard and Steph Curry’s games—turned his spotlight on Sabrina Ionescu.

    Detail - Kobe Bryant: Breaking Down Sabrina Ionescu

    open quotation mark

    Because of what I saw at the SC game and how she processes the game, I thought it was important for another generation of players to be able to see how she thinks the game. Not just women, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about basketball players in general.

    When I say I haven’t seen a player think the game that way, that’s both male and female. It’s important for the next generation to see how you process and think through the game at the highest level. And hopefully ‘Sab’ would pick up a few things too.”

    —Kobe Bryant

    Close quotation mark

  • June 19, 2019

    SABRINA THE GRADUATE

    Sabrina Ionescu in her cap and gown in front of the O on the Lillis Business Complex

    Sabrina’s work ethic on the court is legendary—you don’t more than double the NCAA’s career triple-double record by taking plays off. But she is just as relentless in the classroom, and graduated from the UO in only three years.

    Less than two months after leading the Ducks to the Final Four as a junior, Sabrina Ionescu officially became Sabrina Ionescu, BA ’19 (general social science).

    Having already announced she was returning to the UO for a fourth season, she enrolled in the School of Journalism and Communication’s brand new Advertising and Brand Responsibility Master’s Program, and started studying branding while brushing up on blocking out.

    Sabrina Builds Her Brand as an SOJC Master's Student

    Three classroom photos of Sabrina Ionescu

    open quotation mark

    The Sabrina you see on the court and in the postgame interviews is the Sabrina we see in class. She’s articulate, passionate, and very focused on the work she’s doing.

    The advertising and brand responsibility master’s program provided a way for her to connect several of her own passions—basketball and sports, of course, but also the importance of transcending her athletic ability to advocate for women’s sports and all women athletes in our society.

    In Week 4, I had a student come in and ask, ‘Do you know who Sabrina is? She’s the face of women’s basketball in the US.’ And I said, ‘Yes she is, and she’s also an important part of our program.’

    —Professor Kim Sheeran, director, Advertising and Brand Responsibility Program

     

    Sabrina was the most animated when we talked about the interplay between domestic laws here in the United States and international laws or issues. This is a challenging class, because it’s asking students to dig really deep and question many strongly held or inherent ideas they have about the world.

    I ask students to do that kind of soul searching, and it’s the brave students who ask more questions, because they’re doing that self-audit. Sabrina did that. When we did a lot of the domestic and international comparisons, she had a lot of questions and she was very curious.

    When I watch Sabrina play basketball, she’s very aggressive and very assertive. In the classroom she’s very relaxed and open and would dialogue with classmates. She was a very approachable, open person. A listener. Still a leader, people would often gravitate toward her in small groups.

    I could see her doing any number of things in law if she wanted to. She would find great success there. She was a fun student to have, and she’s an incredible player.”

    —Instructor Lindsay Massara, taught Sabrina and teammate Satou Sabally in LAW 415 (Human rights, law, and culture) in winter term 2019

    Close quotation mark

  • Summer 2019

    KOBE COACHES SAB

    After traveling to Los Angeles to receive the Wooden Award as the nation’s best female collegiate basketball player, Sabrina stayed in California to work out with Kobe at the Mamba Sports Academy.

    By now, Kobe was as much a friend as a mentor—the two spoke on the phone several times a week—and she honed her game with the NBA legend and also took time to coach his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and her teammates.

    open quotation mark

    Sab came down and worked out with the girls on my team, and the workouts that we do don’t change, whether you’re 11 years old or you’re Sabrina. We went through mid-post footwork, went through jab step stuff, create your own shot, things of that nature.

    “I had a few girls from my team there, including my daughter. [Sabrina] was great with the kids, she was great as a competitor, and paid attention to every detail.

    With me, working on jab steps over and over is not so much the jab, but it’s the little things: being on your toe, the angle of the jab, timing, and things like that. She paid attention to all of that.

    “She’s a hungry learner. That’s a good way to describe her. She’s hungry to learn more and more and more and more. She’s not satisfied. She’s constantly looking for ways to get better and improve herself.

    —Kobe Bryant

    Close quotation mark

  • November 9, 2019

    BEATING THE BEST

    Fresh off the program’s first-ever Final Four appearance, the Ducks opened the 2019–20 season against the best opponent on the planet. The USA women’s national team, featuring such legends as WNBA all-time leading scorer, three-time WNBA champion, and four-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi, had only ever lost once to a collegiate team, a one-point loss to Pat Summitt’s Tennessee Lady Volunteers in 1999.

    Kelly Graves tried to temper expectations, saying it would be delusional to think preseason No. 1 Oregon had a chance to win. But the Ducks had a fire lit under them by Taurasi, who spoke to them the evening before the game and told them they shouldn’t let their Final Four run make them complacent.

    The student-athletes listened. Sabrina dropped 30 points on the national team, including an incredible 20 in the third quarter alone, and the Ducks ran away with a 93-86 win in front of 11,530 awed fans at Matthew Knight Arena.

    Sabrina throws her hands up in celebration at beating the USA women's national team
    Sabrina and the Ducks celebrate Oregon's win over the USA women's national team

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    Sabrina’s a kid who wants to compete, and you can see that every time she steps on the court. She wants to compete, she wants to play hard, and she doesn’t care who she plays against. That’s a trait that rubs off on your team and is pretty incredible.

    She has figured out a way to get these triple doubles so easily. It just shows you that she can do anything on the court. On any given day, she can hurt you in any way. When you talk about the great players, it’s not scoring, it’s not passing, it’s not rebounding; on any given night, it could be any one of those skills that beats you.”

    —Diana Taurasi, guard for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and the WNBA's all-time leading scorer

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    February 24, 2020

    TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPH

    With the regular season winding down, a nationally televised February 24 game at No. 4 Stanford loomed large on the calendar. The win over the USA national team may have started the season on an encouraging note, but with three games left in the regular season, the Ducks were still battling the Cardinal for the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament.

    To add to the pressure, Sabrina was nine rebounds shy of becoming the first player in NCAA history—male or female—to score 2,000 points and record 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds.

    But Sabrina had more on her mind than just the Ducks. The morning of the game, she flew to Los Angeles and spoke in front of 20,000 mourners and a worldwide television audience at Kobe Bryant’s memorial service—on 2/24/20, no less, a date that represented Gianna’s, Kobe’s, and her jersey numbers.

    Sabrina joined Michael Jordan, Diana Taurasi, Beyoncé, and others in eulogizing the late legend, recalling how, when she met Kobe for the first time, he congratulated her on the Ducks’ win over the Trojans, but advised her to never settle, keep grinding, and control what you can.

    Sabrina Ionescu speaking at a podium in the Staples Center
    Sabrina speaking at the memorial service for Kobe and Gianna Bryant

    If anyone still foolishly doubted Sabrina’s unfathomable mental strength before the day began, they were left in no doubt by the time it ended. After the emotional service ended, Sabrina took a charter flight to Palo Alto to join the Ducks, and then put in a performance that would’ve made her mentor beam with pride.

    After missing the pregame shootaround while feeling sick with the flu, Sabrina took over once the game tipped off; she left her heavy heart on the bench, and ripped the Cardinal apart on the court. Her 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 12 assists, gave her a 26th career triple-double, clinched her place in history as the only 2k/1k/1k player ever, and led the Ducks to an eight-point win that locked up the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.

    Kobe had taught her to control what she could, and she controlled it like a master.

  • March 1, 2020

    SENIOR DAY

    The four Oregon seniors with flowers
    Ruthy Hebard, Satou Sabally, Sabrina Ionescu, and Minyon Moore

    Sabrina may be the best player in college basketball, but the Ducks are far from a one-player team. Forwards Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally are both projected to be top-five picks in April’s WNBA Draft, and each average more than 16 points per game.

    Hebard leads the team in blocks, rebounds, and shooting percentage, while Sabally, who is turning professional after her junior year, could have made a case for being the first overall player picked in the draft if it wasn’t for Sabrina.

    12,364 fans showed up to farewell Sabrina, Hebard, Sabally, and Minyon Moore on Senior Day, where tickets were being listed on the resale market for more than $800. The Ducks did not disappoint the sold-out crowd, trouncing the Washington Huskies 92-56 behind 24 points from Hebard, 20 from Sabally, 13 from Sabrina, and 11 from Moore.

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    “Sabrina has a lot of great shooters around her. She’s got some scorers. Satou’s amazing.”

    —Kobe Bryant

    “A lot of people probably think Sabrina is easy to play with, but in my opinion, Sabrina’s intensity and competitiveness requires that you do the same as a teammate. That you can’t just be happy to be along for the ride because her intensity requires you to be ready and rise up to every single practice, or the standard of excellence will not be reached.

    “Don’t get me wrong, I think Sabrina’s teammates are completely dialed in, however, as a leader it’s not always easy, because you’re a good teammate but you’re pushing people all the time, and it can be lonely out there.

    “Sabrina has great character and yet, at times she’s a character. She’s a lot of fun off the floor which endears her to her teammates, but as soon as you step across the line, I sense everyone knows exactly what you need to do to rise up to the standards that we have set for ourselves.”

    —Bev Smith, University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame

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    March 27–April 5, 2020

    MARCH MADNESS

    Sabrina cutting down the net
    Sabrina celebrating the Ducks first trip to the Final Four

    As Sabrina wraps up her senior season, she’s the heart of a UO team that bears little resemblance to the one she joined out of Miramonte High School. In the decade prior to her signing, the Ducks were a combined 143-172, with just one conference tournament win and no NCAA Tournament appearances.

    Since then, they’ve gone 117-26, have won the Pac-12 regular season title each of the last three years, and are the 2018 Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament champions. And the NCAA Tournament? Sabrina and the Ducks have embraced March Madness, with two Elite Eight appearances to go with last year’s Final Four run.

    The only thing left is a national title.

    When Sabrina announced she was returning for her senior season, days after last year’s Final Four loss, she said the team had “unfinished business” and was building a program that was going to win national championships—starting hopefully, she added, with the 2020 one.

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    “The attention from Kobe and LeBron is very flattering for her, but I sense that she has a different idea of validation for herself—and that different idea of validation is winning a national championship. The unfinished business that has been bandied about—she will always remain the undisputed GOAT, but winning a national championship would be special as the team’s success is where her heart begins to beat.”

    —Bev Smith, University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame

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  • April 17, 2020

    WHO’S GOT NEXT?

    Sabrina is a college graduate with numerous NCAA and UO records to her name. The scrawny 10-year-old who used to team up with Eddy to school people for Slurpees is now an all-time icon of the game. There are no unsuspecting opponents any more, just helpless ones who scout her every move only to get dominated anyway.

    What Kelly Sopak helped create, Kelly Graves unleashed upon the basketball world, a phenomenon capable of outthinking and outworking any opponent, a Terminator with a ponytail and a cheeky grin. 

    So, what’s left for her to conquer? The Women’s National Basketball Association, where she is projected to be the first overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft on April 17.

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    The most pro-ready parts of her game are certainly her passing ability, her vision, and her feel. You have to see her in person—the way she puts certain spins on the ball, the way the ball comes off her fingertips when she passes, is elite and is something very few players in our league can really do.

    Her feel for the moment is something that few players at any level have: she knows when Satou needs to get going, she knows when Ruthy needs to get going, and she knows when it’s her time. Being able to manage a game like that is really important, especially as she comes to the next level in the WNBA.

    But the WNBA is a lot quicker and a lot more athletic than division one college basketball. These are the best 144 women’s players in the world. She’s going to have to learn to not pick up her dribble as much as she currently does, otherwise traps are going to come her way and that can lead to turnovers. She’s kept those down at Oregon, but at the next level, players are faster and longer and she’s going to need to adapt to that.”

    —WNBA Scout

     

    Sabrina’s going to impact the WNBA in a lot of ways. Her visibility, her popularity, and just the way that she can carry herself on the court and off the court is going to bring huge success to her and to our league in general.

    Sabrina’s so dynamic, with all of the things that she can do. But after watching film and playing against her, her ability to pass is what makes her the most dangerous player in college right now.

    She can score, she can rebound, she can set up the offense, but the minute you put a lot of attention on her she can hurt you with her passing. That’s an ability and a skill that will be there forever. That will make whatever team she’s on a threat.”

    —Diana Taurasi, guard for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and the WNBA's all-time leading scorer

     

    We knew she was going to be an impact player, but I don’t think anybody saw this coming. She was a good player, but now she’s become an icon, not just here at the university but in all of women’s basketball. She’s going to have to prove it in the pros, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an Air SI someday. They’ll make a shoe for her.”

    —Kelly Graves, Oregon women's basketball head coach

     

    The future is very bright, in terms of endorsements and marketability. I think she’ll be the No. 1 pick [in the WNBA Draft]. But she’s coming in with more awareness of who she is, with more of a brand established, than a lot of WNBA players have come in with in the past.

    What is it about her? I think one hypothesis is that male basketball fans are really interested in her and find her compelling and respect her game. She’s making a leap from a popular women’s basketball player, who is popular among fans who watch women’s sports, to a well-known athlete in mainstream sports fandom.

    She has the respect of people like Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry, and LeBron James, and that’s a stamp of credibility that says this woman is the real deal.”

    —Whitney Wagoner, director, Warsaw Sports Marketing Center

     

    It’s a lot to handle. What I’ve said is that those expectations are there for a reason. You don’t have to be anything different than who you are, because you being who you are has brought on these expectations, because that’s what you’re capable of. You don’t need to get in your own head about it and say, ‘I’ve got to live up to this or live up to that.’ Just be who you are.”

    —Kobe Bryant

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