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COLLEGE HOOPS: Oregon players react to seeing potential championship runs cut short

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon coach Kelly Graves gives Ducks guard Sabrina Ionescu a hug as she exits a game. The Pac-12 champs will not get the chance to compete for a national title with the NCAA cancelling this seasons March Madness tournament.

They won't complete their unfinished business of bringing a national championship to Eugene, but women's basketball coach Kelly Graves said believes the accomplishments of his 2019-20 Oregon Ducks rank with some of the best the sport has seen.

"I'll just say it: I think we were the best team in the country. We were playing as well, if not better, than anybody," Graves said during a Friday press conference at Matthew Knight Arena. "We obviously had a mission, and we had a reason to really want to get this done. It's unfortunate that that's taken away, but it certainly won't take away in the long run from all the great memories that we had and the things that we accomplished."

Graves said he "sees the bigger picture" and understands why the tournament was canceled. He appreciated a "gracious and apologetic" Friday call from NCAA President Mark Emmert.

The Ducks finished 31-2, ranked No. 2 behind 32-1 South Carolina in both national polls.

They won the Pac-12 regular-season title for the third year in a row and the Pac-12 tournament for the second time in three years.

And they did it in dominating fashion. In what turned out to be their last game together, Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard, Satou Sabally and their teammates routed a good Stanford team 89-56 in Sunday's Pac-12 championship game at Las Vegas, Nev. — their 19th consecutive victory.

"This team will always be remembered — maybe now for a couple of reasons —  but certainly because of the special people they are individually, and then the greatness of this group collectively," Graves said.

Graves was on a recruiting trip when he learned the NCAA Tournament was canceled.

"I'm trying personally to get over this and move on to what's next. But there's always going to be a hole in my heart for this group of seniors," Graves said.

Those players were not at Thursday's press conference. Graves gave the team this week off from basketball, and the team's stars were not in Eugene, according to the coach.

Graves said he'd been in touch with Ionescu, Hebard and Sabally either by phone or text message.

"They're all processing it in their own way, and they're obviously all disappointed," Graves said.

He met Friday with seven players who are in Eugene this week. His message: 

"It's okay to grieve, and take your time. But one of the things we learn as athletes, and certainly as coaches (is) it's part of my DNA to move on. When we lose a game — 'Hey, what do we do to win tomorrow?'"

Of course, there's nothing to be done for the foreseeable future. All team activities are on hold, and the NCAA has imposed a recruiting blackout period through April 15.

The legacy of this Oregon team will live on in the teams that follow, Graves said. But even without that national championship as a crowning achievement, Ionescu, Hebard and Sabally — each expected to be a high first-round draft pick in the next WNBA draft — leave Oregon as women's basketball icons.

"This won't ever happen again. There won't be another group like this one, ever," Graves said. "We might have equally impressive teams. But what this group did to capture the imagination and the attention and the love of a brand new fan base is really, really incredible."

Ionescu and Hebard led the way in growing the program from one that struggled to attract 2,000 fans into one that regularly filled Matthew Knight Arena with 12,000.

"When we look back, it's still an incredible season," Graves said. "Incredible what they did, not just winning and that kind of stuff, but the attention they brought to basketball.

I don't know if there's been a women's basketball team, outside of UConn and a couple of their special, special teams, that have gotten the kind of attention that this team has nationally — not just from women's basketball fans and our core constituency, but men's basketball fans, NBA players. I think it's unprecedented, quite frankly."

The sadness goes beyond the lost chance to chase a championship. Graves said he feels for the team's fans, especially for the much-anticipated chance to play an NCAA regional in Portland's Moda Center.

"I'm sad we didn't get to showcase women's basketball to the country in Portland. I think the crowds there this year would have smashed whatever we got last year. And Portland's one of the finalists for a future (women's) Final Four. The more opportunities we have to showcase what a great basketball state this is I think helps, maybe, get that Final Four bid."

Graves said his son Will, a sophomore on Gonzaga's men's basketball team that, like the Ducks, was ranked second in the nation, is doing well and knows he will get other opportunities. Graves said his son got emotional about the lost opportunity for the Zags seniors to chase that program's first national title.

OREGON DUCKS MEN

PMG PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - The NCAA cancels its March Madness tournament, meaning Oregon Ducks guard Payton Pritchard has probably stepped onto a college court for the final time.

Instead of leading his Oregon Ducks against Oregon State in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 men's basketball tournament, Dana Altman spent much of Thursday sequestered in his Las Vegas hotel room.

"I kind of pouted in my room all day," the Ducks' coach said during a Friday press conference at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene.

Not that he questions the decision to cancel the NCAA Tournament in light of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

"These decisions were tough for the people who made them, but they had to make these decisions," Altman said. "It's just part of life."

That life will now be quite different for Altman, who is used to March being one of his busiest months followed by a hectic recruiting period in April. But the coach noted that life will be strikingly different for everyone, possibly for much longer than a couple of months.

"We're just going to have to play it day by day and hope this doesn't hit as hard as some people are projecting and we get through it a little bit quicker than anticipated. But it is going to be a change for all of us," Altman said.

Senior guard Payton Pritchard called missing out on the NCAA Tournament frustrating.

"I really felt like this team, we had a chance to do something special," he said.

But Pritchard listed a strong nonconference season and the run to the Pac-12 regular-season championship as special accomplishments for this Ducks' team, which finished 24-7 and was ranked 13th in the AP and coaches' polls.

"We accomplished a lot of what we set out to do," he said. "It has been a great year."

It was a great season for the 6-2 West Linn High graduate. He led the Pac-12 in scoring (20.5 points per game) and assists (5.6), joining Gary Payton (Oregon State, 1989-90), Damon Stoudamire (Arizona, 1994-95) and Jason Terry (Arizona, 1998-99) as the only players in conference history to lead in both points and assists.

Pritchard ends his Oregon career as the program leader in wins (105), assists (659) and games started (140). His 211 steals are three shy of the program record (Kenya Wilkins (1993-97) and his 1,938 points are 138 shy of Ronnie Lee's program record 2,075.

Instead of playing in the NCAA Tournament for a third time or preparing for the NBA draft, Pritchard said the focus for himself and his teammates is to "stay healthy and be with our families."

Altman noted his own 87-year-old father is in assisted living.

"That's the first concern," Altman said. "Then you start thinking about older people that you know. I'm over 60, so I'm in that (higher-risk) group."

Given the severity of the risk, Altman said canceling the NCAA Tournament is a small thing.

"There's a health crisis going on," Altman said. "Payton's grandfather, what if he's following the team and something happens to him? You put everything in perspective, you wouldn't want that."

Asked about suggestions that current seniors be granted an extra season of eligibility, Altman said such a decision would be unlikely to impact his team.

Pritchard, the Pac-12 player of the year and a candidate for several national honors, definitely won't return for a fifth season with Oregon.

"He's ready. He could have went (to the NBA) last year. He turned down a very good financial offer a year ago," Altman said. "He played so well this year, it's time. He's ready."

Pritchard agreed, but said he supports the idea of letting this year's seniors play an additional season.

"I feel for every athlete. There's really nothing like (the NCAA tournament)," Pritchard said.

Shakur Juiston and Anthony Mathis are fifth-year seniors. While Altman would welcome either back in such a scenario, he said each is probably ready to move on to the next phase of his life.

As for what life will hold for him in the coming weeks, Altman joked that he hasn't yet asked his wife what his plans are.

"I'm sure she'll have something for me," he said. "I might even have to do some work around the house."

PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS

While all hockey activity is on hold in the Western Hockey League because of the coronavirus, players for the Winterhawks remain in Portland.

In part because of Portland's remote location, players will remain in town until further direction from the league.

One reason players are staying with their local billet families is the logistics of getting players who are from around western Canada and the United States back to Portland when the league decides to resume hockey activities, according to Winterhawks VP/GM/coach Mike Johnston.

Johnston said teams are allowed to meet and to do off-ice training during this suspension of the season.

He expects more announcements from the WHL early next week about how the league will proceed.

Johnston agrees with the WHL decision to suspend play, but remains hopeful that the season — or at least the playoffs — will still take place.

The Winterhawks are atop a competitive U.S. Division, one point ahead of Everett. The Hawks had five regular-season games left when play was suspended. The WHL playoffs are scheduled to start on March 27.

"We're hoping and anticipating that the season, or at least the playoffs, will happen," Johnston said.

Johnston's message to the players was to stay healthy, hang with their billet families and avoid congregating in large groups.

On Friday, Winterhawks players who are in high school received instructions for continuing their studies during the closure of schools, as announced by Gov. Kate Brown. Winterhawks players in college already take online classes.

Johnston said he and his ice staff will focus their time on preparing for upcoming player drafts, including phone discussions with scouts. The new WHL U.S. prospects draft is scheduled for March 25. The Winterhawks have the 16th and 29th picks in the two-round draft.

This first-time draft allows teams to select 2005-born players from Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

The traditional bantam draft of 2005-born players will take place in early May. Players available for that draft are from those states and from the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and Yukon.

Johnston called this is a unique situation and said the safety of everyone is priority one.

He has experienced shutdowns twice during NHL labor disputes. He was an assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks during lockout that canceled the 2004-05 NHL season. That was particularly stressful, he said, because several false starts occurred when it appeared a resolution was close.

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