In Bridgeport on Saturday, Oregon and UCONN advanced to the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. The two teams will face off on Monday for a chance to break into the Final Four. One team enters Monday night with 110 program wins in the NCAA Tournament; the other had never advanced past the second round in program history until this year. Here is a breakdown of how Oregon and UCONN got to the Elite 8.
Throughout the NCAA Tournament, much has been made of the freshman starters for Oregon. From coaches to analysts, it was a question of when, not if Oregon would make an exit as the ten seed with three freshman starters. However, the Ducks have marched along despite it all.
On Saturday, Oregon faced off against the Maryland Terrapins. Coming into the game, Maryland had defeated opponents by 34.5 points per game. Additionally, the Terps entered the game as the top scoring offense (90.1 points per game). Heading in, Oregon head coach Kelly Graves knew that containing the 3rd seed was crucial. “The more you watch them, the more you realize … they don’t really have many holes,” said Graves on Friday, referring to Maryland with Brenda Frese at the helm. He added, “we’ve got to somehow limit the number of possessions. If we play this game in the 90’s, we’re probably in trouble. If we can keep it between 75 and 80 [points], okay, now that’s a different story.”
The Oregon defense didn’t contain Maryland to 75 points; they did even better. The Terrapins were limited to 63 points by the Ducks. Oregon scored 77 points behind five different players in double digits. Of those five, four were underclassmen. Freshman point guard Sabrina Ionescu dropped 21 points in yesterday’s win. However, it wasn’t only her performance on the court that led to Oregon’s win. Lexi Bando is ranked 3rd in all of the NCAA in 3 point percentage (47.7%), but was quiet in the first half, posting only one point in 20 minutes of play. She ended the game with 10 points, including three clutch shots from behind the arc.
“I definitely said a few things to her,” said Ionescu postgame, “she’s the best shooter in America, so we all hold her to a high standard, and I definitely hold her to a high standard. So, I told her before the game, if she stops shooting, she’s being selfish.” Freshman or not, Ionescu is a leader on this Oregon team and isn’t afraid to challenge herself and her teammates. On Monday, Oregon will come up against their biggest challenge yet, as they try to advance to their first Final Four by denying the Connecticut Huskies an 11th straight appearance.
Connecticut enters the Elite 8 stage as number on in the Bridgeport Region, as well as in the NCAA Tournament. With Saturday’s 86-71 win over UCLA (4 seed), Connecticut is one win away from a 10th consecutive Final Four appearance. The Huskies have parlayed five of their Final Four appearances into a National Championship (11 titles in total). In addition to 110 consecutive NCAA Tournament wins, the Huskies posted a perfect 32-0 season. Throughout the season, UCONN has overcome all three NCAA #1 seeds: Baylor, South Carolina, and Notre Dame. Not only has UCONN beaten all the top seeds, they have beaten each by exactly eleven points. Of the three teams that have lost to UCONN by single digits, only Florida State remains standing in the NCAA Tournament.
UCONN had four players reach double digits, including senior Saniya Chong. “At times it seemed like, she was the only person we could really trust with the ball,” said junior forward Gabby Williams (17 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists).
The Huskies survived UCLA, but aren’t content with their level of play. “I think we were exhausted. We didn’t end the game as well as we would have liked to,” said Williams. “Monday is going to be a hard game as well, and we’re really going to have to stop them at the three-point line,” added sophomore Napheesa Collier (27 points, 14 rebounds) when asked about preparing for Oregon.
The Final Word
UCONN definitely has history on their side, but perhaps a youthful team is exactly what it will take to slay the giant that is Connecticut Basketball. “They’re too young to know any better … you’re not supposed to just walk into the NCAA Tournament and beat teams with three freshman in the starting lineup, and a freshman point guard,” said Coach Auriemma of Oregon’s run.
He added that he’s not surprised at what the Ducks have been able to do. He was confident that Kelly Graves would make Oregon a competitor sooner than most would expect, “I told everybody in the coaching profession, I said, ‘They’re gonna be in the Final Four sooner than anybody thinks.’ As I said earlier today, it better not be this soon, but they’re gonna be there because he’s a hell of a coach.”
Oregon knows what they have lying ahead of them. Even before their opponent for Monday was set, Ionescu welcomed the largest challenge of her career, “We’re going to give every team a fight. We’re going to play our hardest, and if that means we upset the number one team in the country, then that’s what’s going to happen.”