ON COLLEGE HOOPS/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Hard work rewards 'sleeping giant' of women's basketball; depth the one thing Ducks need

COURTESY: ERIC EVANS/OREGON ATHLETICS - Ruthy Hebard returns to the Oregon Ducks after being named the top power forward in the nation last season as a sophomore. EUGENE — Two seasons ago, the Oregon women's basketball team was seen as party crasher during its surprise run to the Elite Eight.

Last season, after winning the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament championships, the Ducks were greatly disappointed by an Elite Eight loss to Notre Dame.

So it must be Final Four or bust in Eugene this winter, right?

Not quite.

"I think we know we're able to get to a Final Four and beyond. But I don't think it's ever the ultimate goal," star junior guard Sabrina Ionescu says. "I believe in goals, but at the same time, I don't. If we set a goal, then that's all we're going for and everything along the way is overlooked. So I think we just focus on ourselves and our team and then everything will take care of itself."

The Ducks have taken care of a lot of business over the last two seasons, going 56-19 and winning more NCAA Tournament games (six) than Oregon managed total over the first 35 years of NCAA women's basketball tournaments.

As he did at Saint Mary's and at Gonzaga, coach Kelly Graves has turned a moribund program into a championship outfit in short order. The arrival of Ionescu two summers ago was a turning point, but even before he accepted the job Graves viewed Oregon as a "sleeping giant" of women's basketball.

While the results have been magical at times, Graves says building a program comes down to hard work and sticking to principles.

"I think I have a good ability to recruit the right player for how we like to play," Graves says. "And, you know, some people might never figure that out. They might chase a ranking. I've never worried about what a kid was ranked. That means nothing. If that was the case, Ruthy Hebard wouldn't be here."

The 6-4 Hebard — one of four starters back from last season's 33-5 team — will begin her junior season with the Ducks in her hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska. Oregon visits Alaska-Fairbanks on Nov. 6. The Ducks' first home game is Nov. 10 against Syracuse.

The arrival of Hebard and Ionescu in 2016 was an indication that things had changed in the two years since Graves replaced Paul Westhead following the 2014-15 season.

"When we first got here, we were recruiting against some of the better mid-major programs and the middle and lower Power Five teams," Graves says. "Now we're recruiting against the top five programs in the nation for players. So it's amazing the transformation in four short years."

Building on its recent success, Oregon will play a nonconference game at Connecticut in 2019-20, with UConn coming to Eugene in 2021-22.

This season — ahead of what Graves anticipates will be an extremely competitive Pac-12 schedule — the Ducks have a mix of nonconference opponents. Among the more intriguing games are visits from Syracuse, Buffalo and 2018 NCAA runner-up Mississippi State to Matthew Knight Arena and a trip for games four days apart at Michigan State and South Dakota State.

Graves scans the globe for players. This season's Ducks feature players from Germany, Spain and Australia.

"We don't just chase anybody here. We chase the right kind of players that fit into a team game," he says. "Even though we have stars on our team, I don't think we play star basketball."

In addition to seeking highly-skilled, quick, athletic competitors, Graves has one principle that is a deal-breaker when recruiting: He stays away from players who focus on their playing time.

"We've really established our family, togetherness, love-of-team culture right from the get-go," Graves says. "That's non-negotiable for us."

Graves is as likely to talk about his players' personalities as he is their basketball skills.

"We're winning with the right players. Our kids are awesome. They're so engaging when they meet with the public and little kids and all that. There are a lot of programs that win that people don't go watch," Graves says.

"People in women's basketball like to watch a team they know are good kids."

And the Ducks "like to play, they like each other and they're good with the fans."

It doesn't hurt that Oregon has some elite talent.

Ionescu is a consensus All-American, last season's Nancy Lieberman National Point Guard of the Year and Pac-12 Player of the Year. She led the conference in points (19.7) and assists (7.8) per game. Just two seasons into her career, the 5-9 Ionescu owns the NCAA women's basketball record for career triple-doubles (10).  

Graves lists defense and pick-and-roll execution as areas where Ionescu can improve — both to help the Ducks succeed and to bolster her pro basketball future.

Trust in her teammates is another area, Graves says, noting that Ionescu sometimes tries to carry the Ducks on her own. It is an impulse the coach understands.

"She's a competitor, and the great ones do that," he says. "But she's really blessed with some awesome teammates around her and so if she can continue to just be the conductor of that orchestra, then I think that's when she's at her best."

The other returning starters are Hebard, 5-10 senior guard Maite Cazorla and 6-4 sophomore Satou Sabally.

Graves describes Ionescu as Oregon's best player, Hebard as its most dominant player, Sabally as its most impressive player and Cazorla as the most important player.

The Ducks will miss graduated 3-point ace Lexi Bando, but the addition of redshirt sophomore Erin Boley will give them another dimension on the wing.

The starting five will log big minutes. Senior post/wing Oti Gildon is the only experienced non-starter on a roster that opens the season with just eight healthy players.

Hebard was honorable mention All-American after a sophomore season of 17.6 points and nine rebounds per game. She won the Katrina McClain Award as the top power forward in the nation.

Hebard, Ionescu, Boley and Gildon represented the United States at the 3-on-3 World Cup this summer. Hebard and Ionescu spent time last month at a USA national team training camp. Graves says playing against WNBA stars Tina Charles and A'Ja Wilson at that camp will boost Hebard's confidence. He says Hebard is not close to her ceiling.

"With her, it's having that mentality that, 'I'm going to be a beast at the block. No one's going to push me around. I'm going to catch it, and when I catch it I'm either going to score or get fouled,'" Graves says.

Cazorla, 5-10, has averaged 10 points and five assists per game during her three UO seasons. She is a versatile player and the team's best perimeter defender, says Graves, who believes a strong senior year could make Cazorla a first-round pick in next year's WNBA draft.

"In the big moments, we need Maite to be at her best. She normally is," Graves says. "She's so smart and so savvy, and she knows her role and how she fits into the grand scheme of things."

Sabally was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year last season. The German U-20 national team player averaged 10.7 points and 3.7 rebounds. She had standout performances in two of the Ducks' biggest wins (over Oregon State and UCLA) and is a star in the making, according to Graves.

"You watch her play and you're just astounded at what she can do with the basketball. Shoots it, drives it. She's good around the bucket," Graves says. "She's got to continue to be aggressive to the basket. I think she can get better on the boards. But she is so fluid, and gives us that X factor."

Another X factor could be Boley. The 2016 Gatorade National Player of the Year at Elizabethtown (Kentucky) High, Boley sat out last season after transferring from Notre Dame and has three seasons of eligibility. At 6-2, she adds size on the wing defensively.

"I think there are going to be times when she has huge, huge nights," Graves says. "What she will allow is, we'll be able to put a lineup on the floor at times where we have four not just good but elite 3-point shooters surrounding Ruthy."

The one thing these Ducks don't have is depth. Injuries are one reason for that, and four players have left the program. Forward Mallory McGwire transferred to Boise State, forward Sierra Campisano transferred to Cal Poly, guard Anneli Maley went to TCU, and guard Aina Ayuso decided to turn pro in her native Spain.

The biggest loss was a knee injury suffered by 6-4 incoming freshman Nyara Sabally. Satou's younger sister injured her right knee in August during the championship game of the European Under-18 Championships. Despite the injury, she was named tournament MVP as Germany won the title.

She has had surgery and is in Eugene.

"She's rehabbing really well already," Graves says. "She's so good. She would have been the best freshman in the conference."

Gildon, 6-1, has been a solid defender and rebounder off the bench for three years. Graves says she's poised for a breakout senior year given the minutes she will play.

"She's got to have a beast of a senior year. She's our glue kid, the leader in a lot of ways," he says.

The small roster means opportunities for guards Morgan Yaeger and Taylor Chavez, and for 6-6 post Lydia Giomi.

Yaeger, a redshirt sophomore from Australia, sat out last season with a back injury but has looked strong in early practices. Chavez, 5-10, is a two-time Arizona high school player of the year.

Injuries have slowed Giomi's development. She broke her foot in the first Pac-12 tournament game last season after missing the previous year with a broken wrist. She is doing some work on the court but is not cleared for full contact.

"She has not had an offseason for us, which is too bad because that's when you really make strides," Graves says. "She's 6-6 and going to be 6-6 the whole game. She's a good athlete, and we'll need her to give us some good minutes this year."

Graves spoke with veteran coaches — including Connecticut's Geno Auriemma — about managing a short roster. He found most of them liked it because it keeps every player invested in the season.

"The chemistry on the court becomes, I think, a little better because the same players are getting reps and playing with each other longer," Graves says.

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