TAMPA — At least once or twice this week, Oregon head coach Kelly Graves jokes that he’s found himself humming the “Sesame Street” tune, “One of these things is not like the other.”
“We are the new kid,” Graves said, on the eve of the Ducks’ first-ever appearance in the NCAA Final Four at Amalie Arena Friday night. “We are a really good team with nothing to lose, and that’s a dangerous way to play.”
Baylor’s Kim Mulkey — Graves’ opponent on the sidelines Friday night in the national semifinals — has been to the Final Four both as a player (where she won two national titles at Louisiana Tech), and as a head coach (four times with the Bears). Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw has coached in eight Final Fours. Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma has coached in a mind-blowing 19 of them. Graves and his Ducks, in contrast, are here for the first time, enjoying the red-carpet treatment, the celebrations, the locker room filled with media from across the country. It’s all part of the Final Four experience.
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But the most important part of the experience will happen when the ball tips off on Friday night.
“I think we’ve smiled so much this whole week, these last few days for sure,” said Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu, whose team made the Elite Eight two years running before breaking through. “We’re definitely just enjoying the moment…but now it’s game time. We’re focusing on the game. We are not really going to change who we are. We’re going to enjoy and be appreciative of the position we are in.”
In that way, the Ducks have much in common with Baylor. None of Baylor’s players have played in a national semifinal, the Bears last trip to the Final Four back in 2012 when the won the title behind Brittney Griner.
The Bears bring a 27-game win streak into the semifinal game and a 38.2-point margin of victory in four NCAA games so far.
Bears guard Chloe Jackson called the opportunity to play for an NCAA title a “dream come true.”
“I couldn’t have written a better story, honestly,” Jackson said. “We’re not content. We just want to keep pushing, stay focused to win a championship.”
The second game will juxtapose from the first with a pair of teams in Notre Dame and Connecticut who have 50 games of heated history against one another behind them. And on this big, bright stage, they have most definitely been here, done this.
Connecticut’s seniors Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier have played in the Final Four four times. Notre Dame has been here two straight years, including last year’s dramatic title run.
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“I think when you’ve played in this game, it’s good and bad,” Auriemma said. “You know this is what happens at the end if you play great — you get to play in the national championship game on Sunday. But you also have bad memories too and sometimes those memories pop up in the last five minutes of a game. When you’ve never played in this game, you don’t have any bad memories…Everything is new, everything is fresh. You just play.”
Auriemma said he thinks each set of teams will come into their semifinal with a different mindset as a result.
“I would think the first game is two teams that are playing with a certain amount of emotion, ‘I can’t believe we reached our dream, we’re in the Final Four,’ ” Auriemma said.
Last year, Graves and Ionescu found themselves in the hallway of Nationwide Arena in Columbus, just days after the Ducks lost in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion Notre Dame. Graves was escorting his star player, Ionescu, to her various obligations and awards ceremonies on media day.
“I remember it all. I remember talking and it was just me and the coaches that were here. I told them, ‘We are going to come back here, and we were going to come back as a team.’ It wasn’t fun coming along, seeing the teams you played, seeing the buses get escorted while you’re standing on the street watching them go by. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
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Graves also recalls standing next to Ionescu as the bus carrying one of the Final Four teams drove past.
“She took it hard,” Graves said. “When you get as close as we did the last two years, there’s part of you that pangs to be in that position. It’s certainly something I wanted to have happen for this group.”
This year, for much of the season, there was a photocopied black-and-white photo of the downtown Tampa skyline taped up in the Ducks locker room.
“I looked at it every day,” Ionescu said. “It was something we never talked about. We let it just sit there, in the back of their minds.”
And when Oregon defeated Mississippi State in the regional final in Portland on Sunday to reach the national semifinals for the first time, Ionescu just kept repeating “We did it! We did it!”, a moment she said was equal parts release and relief.
“It is an accomplishment to get to the Elite Eight, but to get there two years in a row, we wanted more,” Ionescu said. “This is where we want to be, with an opportunity to win two more games.”
While Oregon has already been working on its scouting report, working on the ways it plans to combat Baylor’s balance and contain the dominant duo of 6-foot-8 Kalani Brown and 6-4 forward Lauren Cox, plotting its path to a spot in the national championship game as one of the country’s top offensive teams, Graves has been doing some additional homework. He spent Monday tapping the brains of coaches that have been in this spot before. He talked to Oregon's men’s coach, Dana Altman, who coached in his first Final Four two years ago. He called old friends and mentors. The message from them was largely the same, “Be yourselves and enjoy it.”“We are a loose group. Our kids have fun and I don’t think anything is going to change that,” Graves said. “I don’t think the moment is going to be too big for us. We have had a lot of pressure and attention all year long. We are used to that. We realize that we are probably an underdog here, but that’s OK.”