TAMPA BAY, Fla. — Oregon point guard Sabrina Ionescu had to wipe away tears from her cheek before the first Women’s Final Four semifinal game was even over. That shows how much this season has meant to her and the rest of the Oregon Ducks.
After Satou Sabally’s jumper caromed off the rim with 0:31 remaining, Baylor forward Lauren Cox sank two free throws with 0:18 left to extend the Lady Bears’ lead to 71-67. Soon after, center Kalani Brown added another free throw to secure a 72-67 victory for the Baylor.
The loss wasn’t for lack of effort. Oregon coach Kelly Graves preached all week that his team would play its game, and it seemed to work for a while. Oregon’s high-scoring, 3-point shooting offense eliminated almost all of Baylor’s runs that started with Brown and Cox. The score at halftime was 34-33 in favor of the Ducks after Ionescu completed a miraculous 4-point play with eight seconds remaining in the second quarter. The Ducks fans, some of whom traveled more than 3,100 miles, showered their team with applause as they sprinted to the locker room.
The game remained close in the second half, with Cox snagging her ninth rebound after a missed Baylor jumper. She laid it in easily with her right hand to put the Lady Bears ahead 56-55 as time expired in the third quarter.
The lead never reached more than four points for either team until the final seconds of play, as the Ducks failed to make a basket during the moments it counted most. They were 1-of-12 from the field in the last six minutes of the game.
For its first Final Four appearance in school history, Oregon seemed unmoved by the increased media attention. The players were relaxed. They didn’t mind the lights, the camera shutters, or media questions. In fact, Ionescu even joked about the comfortable press conference chairs.
Whether Ionescu will be back for her senior season with the Ducks is still up in the air. When asked in the postgame press conference about whether she has thought about her future, Ionescu powerfully stated a single word: “No."
In the locker room, the players opened up more about the impact of this season and what it will mean for the future of the Ducks women’s basketball program.
“It’s huge,” Ionescu said. “I think we’re going to go down as one of the best teams in program history. The sky is the limit still for this team. So, it’s crazy to even think that there’s so much more room for growth. I’m excited to have been a part of that this year.”
Forward Ruthy Hebard played for 35 minutes and battled against Cox and Brown. Though her point total (four) was far from her average, she had nine rebounds, four of which came on offense.
“Of course it wasn’t the result that we wanted,” Hebard said. “But we made it here. We gave them a game. And I think we shocked a lot of people and I’m so proud of all my teammates.”
If Ionescu does leave for the draft, the leadership will fall partially on Hebard’s shoulders. She hopes to continue to inspire every Ducks player, both new and returning, to push hard and have fun.
“I want to bring light and joy to the team so we can make that next step next year,” she said, smiling. “When we have fun, Oregon plays better."
“We’re not going anywhere,” Graves said during the Ducks’ postgame press conference. “This is a program that is going to be around. Hey, listen, now we don’t have to say ‘next year.’ This is the first time we’re here. If we can get here again, or sometime soon, now we’ll have a little bit of experience and that always helps.”