October 11, 2017
SAN FRANCISCO — Sabrina Ionescu sat on the dais between UO women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves and fellow sophomore standout Ruthy Hebard on Wednesday at Pac-12 Media Day, and before the question was even finished, began shaking her head in the negative.
In the wake of Oregon’s run to the Elite Eight last season, are the Ducks already discussing the Final Four as a goal for the 2017-18 season?
“No — definitely not,” Ionescu said emphatically. “I know my goal as a player, and our team goal, is taking everything one step at a time. And that begins with practice. We take everything one step at a time, and live in the moment.”
With that, Graves beamed with pride. Of course the Ducks, with their top seven scorers back from last season, have the talent and experience to build on last season’s remarkable postseason. But they’re not going to get there by talking about it.
Graves travelled to the conference’s media day with two of his outstanding sophomores, all-America candidates Ionescu and Hebard. They’re the faces of a returning group that also includes senior sharp-shooter Lexi Bando, post Mallory McGwire, point guard Maite Cazorla and an influx of freshman talent from the international ranks.
The Ducks had nine players participate in at least 33 games during last season’s 23-14 campaign. Eight of those return, including all five starters. The group was picked to finish second in the Pac-12 by conference coaches, but Graves isn’t taking anything for granted as the Ducks embark on a season that begins in the Preseason WNIT against Cal State Northridge in Matthew Knight Arena on Nov. 10.
“Obviously we’re not flying under the radar now,” Graves said. “… Even though we have a lot of game experience, the reality is we’re still very young. So I think the ceiling is very high, (but) we’re still a work in progress.”
For the second year in a row, the Ducks will have a senior role player whose voice is among the most prominent on the team. In 2016-17, it was post Jacinta Vandenberg, who averaged less than 15 minutes per game but was Oregon’s “mama Duck” behind the scenes. This season, Bando provides a voice of experience — along with the most accurate three-point shot in school history.
But already, the precocious sophomore class is stepping up. Ionescu is a natural alpha, commanding whichever room she’s in, whether it’s with the Ducks in a team meeting or Wednesday with the media who cover the conference. A media member asked Ionescu to pronounce her name, and rather than simply doing so, Ionescu led the room through a call-and-response pronunciation lesson: “OK, all together now — Yo! Ness! Coo!”
“It’s an inspiration every day, having her push me,” said Hebard, like Ionescu an all-Pac-12 player last season as a freshman. “It’s just gonna be great to play with her for the next three years.”
It’s clear, too, that Ionescu and Hebard will enjoy playing the next three years with the incoming freshman class. It’s rooted in the international ranks, with guard Aina Ayuso of Spain, and wings Satou Sabally of Germany and Anneli Maley of Australia.
They join a UO roster that includes another Spanish guard, Cazorla, and guard Morgan Yaeger out of Australia.
“The game is international now,” Graves said. “If you’re not recruiting internationally, you’ve doing a disservice to your university and your program. There’s so many good players.”
Both Ionescu and Hebard were asked Wednesday to pick a new teammate they’d rely upon to hit a big shot. In a measure of the impression Sabally has made already, both sophomores picked the 6-foot-4 slasher from Berlin.
“She’s long, she’s athletic, she shoots the ball well,” Ionescu said. “I think she’s going to be a great fit, and earn a really big role on our team.”
A player with Sabally’s talent joining a roster that made last year’s Elite Eight fueled questions Wednesday about the Final Four. That won’t be last time this preseason the Ducks are faced with the expectation externally that they’ll take another step in the postseason come spring.
But as Ionescu showed Wednesday, the focus internally is on daily improvement. And that excites Graves as much as anything.
“I go to bed smiling almost every night, because I don’t think I’ve coached — so far — a group that’s been more fun, more competitive, in my life,” Graves said. “I really enjoy these guys.”