June 29, 2016
By Rob Moseley
Photo: Eric Evans/Joe Waltasti
The evening of March 30, 2016, illustrated both where Oregon women’s basketball was, in its second season under head coach Kelly Graves, and what Graves envisioned in the future for the Ducks.
That day, in Vermillion, S.D., the UO women saw their second season under Graves come to an end. The Ducks finished the year 24-11, the second-highest win total in the program’s history. They nearly doubled their win total from Graves’ first season, after he spent 14 years at Gonzaga that included seven NCAA Tournament appearances.
Meanwhile that same day, 500 miles to the east, the McDonald’s All-American Game was being played in Chicago. As Graves and his staff were coming to terms with the end of their season, guard Sabrina Ionescu was putting the finishing touches on an MVP performance, proving herself the class of the all-America field by scoring 25 points on 7-of-14 three-point shooting, and grabbing 10 rebounds.
Though disappointed at seeing their season end, Graves considered 2015-16 an encouraging step in the right direction. And Ionescu’s performance hinted at bigger steps potentially to come for the Ducks. Because not only had Oregon recently signed the nation’s sixth-ranked recruiting class for 2016, last November, the program remained in the hunt for the services of Ionescu, one of the top-ranked players in the country.
Last week, Ionescu ended months of anticipation and joined what has become a historic UO recruiting class. The guard from Walnut Creek, Calif., enrolled for summer session at the university, put the finishing touches on a class now ranked No. 3 in the nation by ESPNW, with five players ranked in the top 100 nationally and three in the top 40.
“I think Sabrina will be the glue that will make this an incredible basketball team, and an incredible freshman class,” Graves said.
Graves and his staff were hired late in the spring of 2014, putting them behind the curve to sign recruits for the 2015 class. They rallied to secure commitments from future mainstays like guard Maite Cazorla, who averaged 11.7 points and 5.9 assists as a true freshman this past season. But they immediately identified the class of 2016 as the one that would determine the fortunes of the program, and thus the staff itself.
The class, which enrolled together last week, includes some of the top forwards in the country for this recruiting cycle, in 6-foot-3 Sierra Campisano, 6-foot-4 Ruthy Hebard, 6-foot-5 Mallory McGwire and 6-foot-6 Lydia Giomi. It includes tenacious wing Jayde Woods and Australian guard Morgan Yaeger. And now it includes Ionescu as well, arguably the top recruit ever to sign with Oregon, in the conversation with luminaries like Bev Smith and Jenny Mowe.
Ionescu captivated the women’s basketball world by opting not to sign last fall, and then allowing the spring signing period to come and go as well. The drama ended last week, when she drove north with her family from California, and exited Interstate 5 in Eugene.
“I had to make a decision,” she said. “I couldn’t keep waiting. I felt like I could help this team build something – potentially something great. That just sparked with me.”
If Ionescu’s recruitment seemed drawn-out to the women’s college basketball world, it was nothing compared to the investment made by the UO staff in working to make her a part of the Ducks’ 2016 class.
Mark Campbell, the UO assistant who was Ionescu’s primary recruiter, recalls watching her in the summer after she finished eighth grade; he was on the road scouting older players in club competition, and when he had a break between games, he’d drift over to watch younger teams. The little kid hustling to win 50-50 possessions and diving out of bounds for loose balls immediately caught his eye.
“She was really small; she had this huge jersey that was too big for her,” Campbell recalled. “But she was just hooping.”
Later, Campbell flew all the way to Prague to watch Ionescu help the USA U17 team win a world championship; the gold medal game was played on the first day coaches could recruit off-campus, and thus Campbell was on the ground in Czech Republic less than 24 hours total. The next day, Campbell was back in the United States recruiting, and soon after Ionescu was back in action with her club team, eschewing the break some of her teammates from the national team took after the world championships.
That thirst for competition by Ionescu endeared the UO coaching staff to her. So too did her stated desire the following summer, 2015, to lead her Cal Stars club team to an undefeated season. Club play for some recruits is a chance for individual exposure; for Ionescu, it was all about team success, and she went on – along with her future UO teammate McGwire – to help Cal Stars go 53-1.
Of those 54 games featuring Ionescu and McGwire, on the way to winning the Nike EYBL championship, Campbell was on hand for every single one. “When you’re young, coaches tell you how much they want you,” Ionescu said. “But actions speak louder than words. That definitely helped, seeing that familiar face in the crowd every single game.”
In October 2015, Ionescu made her official visit to Eugene. She did so during an unprecedented weekend in which all six of Oregon’s U.S.-born recruits – Woods, Campisano, McGwire, Giomi, Hebard and Ionescu – visited on the same weekend.
The other five all had committed to Graves and his staff by then. Ionescu was the outlier, but she deftly handled herself, joining her fellow recruits for some group photos then slipping out of the frame for others in recognition of her uncommitted status.
“Sabrina did a great job weaving herself in, and the others did a great job making her a part of everything, while giving her some space,” Campbell said. “It was a little bit of a tricky dynamic, but everybody handled it great.”
Said Ionescu: “I didn’t feel any awkwardness. I felt completely involved in what they were doing.”
Still, she delayed her decision, through the winter and into this spring. At some point in April or May, her contact with Oregon stopped being a recruitment. “They exerted everything they had,” Ionescu said. “They didn’t really have to sell me on anything else. It was just kind of keeping in touch, seeing where I was at in everything.”
To the women’s basketball recruiting world, a sordid, behind-the-scenes drama was assumed. To Ionescu and the Ducks, it was anything but.
“You have a peace about it, when you know you’ve done everything you can do,” Campbell said. “And then the rest is, let her make her decision – when she wants to make her decision.”
Last week, it finally was made. A few days later, Ionescu laced up a pair of yellow sneakers with her new teammates, and participated in her first workout as a Duck. Prior to an hour of open gym, Graves gathered his new team at midcourt.
“This is going to be a special year, you guys,” he told them. “And it starts today.” For the next 60 minutes, the UO head coach couldn’t stop smiling.
With three teams rotating on and off the court, Ionescu somehow talked her way into subbing on to whatever team was up next, so that she rarely sat out. The “off-the-charts” basketball IQ Campbell first saw four years earlier was on display several times; a few passes caught her new teammates off-guard, though they won’t after a few more months of workouts for the 2016-17 season.
Also on display were the reasons Ionescu is considered the “cherry on top” of this UO class, and not the only piece that matters. Hebard and McGwire were contesting every shot in the paint. Giomi was running the floor like a player a foot shorter than her 6-foot-6 frame, Woods showed her reputation as a tough defender was not misplaced and Yaeger was draining shots from every spot on the floor.
Assistant coach Nicole Powell took it all in from midcourt. “We’re going to remember this day,” she said at one point, just barely loud enough for anyone else to hear.
After an hour, the new-look Ducks walked off the court. Just a few days earlier, they weren’t sure whether Ionescu would be part of the team. Now, it was clear to her she’d made the right choice.
“I feel,” Ionescu said simply, “at home.”