RINGLEADER on the court
EUGENE — Monday was a light day for Oregon women's basketball. The starters shot some, but took it easy while some of the reserves ran five-on-five in pickup games involving the UO male students who provide competition during practice sessions.
On the sidelines was coach Kelly Graves, chatting it up with Oregon's resident superstar, Sabrina Ionescu, easy smiles on both of their faces.
And why not? What the Ducks have accomplished this season is extraordinary. They are ranked third in the nation, 23-1 overall and leading the Pac-12 with a 12-0 record heading into Friday's 6 p.m. Civil War showdown with ninth-ranked Oregon State (20-4, 10-2 and second in the conference) at Matthew Knight Arena. The teams meet again at 6 p.m. Monday in Corvallis.
Oregon is coming off its most impressive victory of the season, Sunday's 88-48 pummeling of then-11th-ranked Stanford at Maples Pavilion that served as Tara VanDerveer's worst loss in 33 years as Cardinal coach.
The Ducks smoked Stanford with .571 shooting, including 12 for 16 from 3-point range. It was a team triumph, for sure, but the ringleader was Ionescu (pronounced "Yo-Ness-Koo"). She had 27 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in a sterling 36-minute show.
"She is terrific," Vanderveer said afterward. "(The Ducks) have a well-oiled machine. They're very good, and she is outstanding. She's an All-American for a reason."
On Monday, Ionescu was named Pac-12 Player of the Week for the eighth time after averaging 27 points in road wins at California and Stanford.
These are uncharted waters for an Oregon program that mostly toiled in mediocrity before Graves arrived on the scene in 2014 after 17 seasons as a head coach at Saint Mary's and Gonzaga. Graves also spent four years as an assistant coach under Jim Sollars at the University of Portland prior to that (1993-97); he and wife Mary kept their house in Sellwood for "seven or eight years," he says, after leaving Portland.
The Ducks were 13-17 overall and tied for ninth in the Pac-12 with a 6-12 mark their first season with Graves at the helm. They went 24-11 and 9-9 in 2015-16 and then reached the Elite Eight the past two seasons, claiming the school's first women's basketball Pac-12 championship last year.
Graves — 498-210 in his 22 seasons as a head coach and in position to gain career win No. 500 with a sweep of the two games with the Beavers — has recruited many top-notch players, but none of the ilk of Ionescu, a 5-11 junior point guard loaded with poise, talent and determination. The Walnut Creek, California, native ranks among the top 10 in the Pac-12 in several categories, including assists (first, 8.2), 3-point percentage (first, .462), free-throw percentage (second, .868), scoring (sixth, 19.3) and rebounds (tied for 10th, 7.3).
Ionescu has been the model of consistency this season. She hasn't scored in single figures all year. She has been in double figures in rebounds nine times, in double figures in assists eight times. She leads the nation in assists.
Her first year at Oregon, Ionescu was named national Freshman of the Year by ESPNW Magazine and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. As a sophomore last year, she was Pac-12 Player of the Year, the Pac-12 tournament Most Valuable Player, a Wade Trophy and Wooden Award finalist, the Nancy Lieberman Award winner for national point guard of the year and a consensus first-team All-American, the first Associated Press All-American in UO history. She also set an NCAA record (for men or women) in career triple-doubles, a figure that has reached 16 this season.
Ionescu, 21, is the straw that stirs the drink for the Ducks, who lead the nation in scoring at 90.3 points per game. What has she meant to the program?
"You look at the record, No. 1," says Graves, who is 79-20 since Ionescu came aboard. "No. 2, the attention this team is getting."
LeBron James offered a shout-out on Twitter after the Stanford win. Stephen Curry — who follows Ionescu on Twitter — posed for a photo with her after Golden State's last game against the Trail Blazers at Moda Center. Kobe Bryant, who coaches his daughter's youth team, came to a UO game against Southern Cal in L.A. last month.
"The Ducks are (Bryant's daughter's) favorite team," Graves says. "Sue Bird sat in the front row at Washington. Senator (Ron) Wyden came down to one of our games. All of that, and then the fans."
During the 2015-16 season, the year before Ionescu arrived, the Ducks drew 1,501 spectators per home game. Last season, the average was up to 4,255, and this year the number has climbed to 6,567.
"It's not just Sabrina," Graves says. "She has really good teammates, and we play a fun style. But we're not just getting the diehard Duck fans anymore. She is bringing with her some new fans to the sport. She transcends men's and women's basketball. She's just a baller. People really appreciate that."
Ionescu shares an apartment in Eugene with twin brother Eddy, who is attending Lane Community College after playing at City College of San Francisco the previous two years while deciding the next step in his basketball career.
"It's awesome having him at home, living with me here," she says. "We're best friends. We've grown up and done everything together. It's nice to see him at all the home games and have him around all the time."
Their parents, Dan Ionescu and Liliana Blaj, are native Romanians. Sabrina speaks fluent Romanian.
"A lot of times they'll speak Romanian to me," she says with a smile, "and I'll speak back to them in English."
Ionescu and Blaj have three children. The oldest boy, Andrei, was born in Bucharest and came to the U.S. with his parents in 1990, just after the Romanian Revolution signaled the fall of Communist rule in the east European country. Seven years later, the twins were born.
Dan and Liliana weren't athletes.
"They didn't know much about sports at all," Sabrina says.
But they wanted their children to be involved in something productive.
"They just made sure that I paid attention to school," she says. "Whatever else I wanted to do for fun, they were all for it."
The twins drifted toward basketball, learning the game on the playground at Larkey Park in Walnut Creek in the East Bay of Northern California. They quickly became gym rats, spending hours playing with older kids, Sabrina tagging along with her brother to play with the boys.
"That helped me a lot," she says. "They're so much taller and stronger and quicker and faster. It helps me now. I still go home and play with the guys at the gym (during Christmas and vacation breaks). It's great competition."
As a young girl, Sabrina faced some obstacles in pursuing her growing passion.
"In sixth grade, we didn't have a girls basketball team, so I wanted to play on my brother's team," she says. 'My dad asked if I could try out for the guys' team, and they said that, no, I should be playing with dolls."
Sabrina gathered enough of her friends to form a team.
"We weren't very good," she says, "but we at least had a team that I could play for."
Ionescu's reputation grew quickly after she entered Miramonte High.
"By her sophomore year, Sabrina was a pretty well-known commodity in girls basketball," says Graves, who was at Gonzaga at the time. "As soon as I got to Oregon, that's when (assistant coach) Mark Campbell said, 'This is a must-get.'"
Ionescu — ranked as the No. 4 recruit in the nation as a senior by ESPNW and the MaxPreps National Player of the Year — narrowed her schools to Oregon, OSU and Cal before choosing the Ducks.
"I really enjoyed the coaching staff," she said. "They're great people on and off the court. They believed in me and the other kids they were recruiting, that we could build something here. I bought into what they believe in, and we've done well so far."
Graves watched Ionescu play as often as possible through the recruiting process. She reminded him of Courtney Vandersloot, the best player he coached in 14 years at Gonzaga and the third overall pick in the 2011 WNBA draft.
"I liked (Ionescu's) competitiveness," he says. "She wasn't the biggest kid, not the fastest kid, didn't jump the highest, but she was relentless. She never quit. When she was going up against bigger, stronger athletes, it was noticeable. Here was this skinny kid, working her butt off.
"She played not just hard, but really smart. She was always a step ahead. That's what caught my eye."
Three years later, Ionescu has fulfilled all of Graves' expectations and more. What makes her a great player?
"No. 1, a competitive spirit drives her," he says. "A lot of players play hard. She takes it to the next level. She never takes a play off, whether in a game or practice, any drill. She is just wired differently.
"No. 2, she has great skill, God-given court vision and touch. The last thing is her (basketball) IQ. One weekend, she had 25 rebounds against USC and UCLA teams with long, athletic players. The reason she was getting those rebounds is she is tough and really smart and knows how to anticipate where the ball will fall."
There is a fourth reason: Work ethic. In an 87-65 win over Utah on Feb. 1, Ionescu scored only 11 points on 3-for-11 shooting.
"She stayed after the game and went into the practice facility and shot for an hour," Graves says. "Never had a harder worker."
Ionescu has enjoyed an excellent relationship with Graves, who has been more than a coach.
"He is a great guy, on and off the court," she says. "Being able to have a fatherly figure away from home has been nice."
Graves gives Ionescu free rein to exhibit leadership, and she has become more verbal in directing the Ducks this season. One published report said she has "moved (teammates) to tears" at times.
"I don't know if anyone has actually cried," she says, "but I do have input, just being able to tell people straightforward. They know I'm not going to lie or beat around the bush. They know whatever I have to say is going to be pretty honest."
The respect among the Ducks is such that an excellent camaraderie exists, along with a strong self-belief.
"Everyone is mentally and physically on board," Ionescu says. "We came in not knowing each other and not knowing what we could accomplish. Now everyone is on the same page and has bought into this program. To see the evolution of that over the last three years is really rewarding.
"Our coaches have never been in this position. Our program has never been in this position. It shows how all of our hard work and dedication has been paying off."
Ionescu thinks back to her freshman year, when the Ducks went 23-14 overall and 8-10 in Pac-12 play.
"That might be more games than I lost my entire high school career," she says. "It was like a reality check. I hadn't ever had that feeling of losing ever.
"Now it's almost like I'm back in my prime years of high school. I love how we continue to grow."
Vandersloot is the only player in college basketball history to get 2,000 points and 1,000 assists in a career. "No man has ever done it," Graves says. "Sabrina is on pace to not only be the second to do that, but to add 1,000 rebounds to that. Those are iconic numbers. We may never see it again in our lifetime."
Last April, Ionescu and Oregon teammates Erin Boley, Ruthy Hebard and Oti Gildon teamed to win the USA Basketball 3-on-3 national championship. In June, they reached the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup in the Philippines. With 3-on-3 being added to the Olympic calendar in Tokyo next year, Ionescu would love to take part.
"It'd be cool," she says. "I really enjoyed the 3-on-3 game. Doing it last summer gave me a little insight and sneak peek into what it's going to be like (in Tokyo)."
Oregon women's basketball has had some great ones through the years, players such as Bev Smith and Alison Lang and Shaquala Williams and Jillian Alleyne. Ionescu, though, is indisputably the best ever.
Her career as a Duck, however, may be nearing an end. ESPN and Draftsite.com forecast Ionescu to go No. 1 in the April WNBA draft. Her mother was spotted conversing with agent Bill Duffy before the Stanford game.
Few players have left early in college women's basketball, but few have the talent and the potential to be a game-changer as Ionescu, who also could command a nice salary playing professionally in Europe.
Last summer, Ionescu was among five collegiate players invited to attend the USA Basketball national team training camp in South Carolina.
"Could she go high (in the WNBA draft)? Absolutely." South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, the coach of the U.S. national team, told The Washington Post afterward. "The thing that stood out to me most was her competitiveness. She wasn't intimidated. She looked like she belonged, and that does not happen much at that age. Her ability to see the floor in a pick-and-roll situation is incredible. She is bringing a whole lot of things that others are not."
Ionescu says she has not decided whether she'll stay for her senior season or leave for the pro ranks.
"I'm not really thinking about it," she says. "It's cool to be in the position to be able to make a decision and be in a category with all those great players who are going to get drafted. But I'm excited to be here with my team right now."
Graves would love to keep his franchise player, but understands the Ionescu era could be over at season's end.
"I'm sure it's a possibility," he says. "That's why she's showing up on draft projections. I'll leave that to her. We haven't discussed it at length. There are good reasons to leave; there are good reasons to stay. A lot of that probably depends on how the team does."
After back-to-back Elite Eight finishes her first two seasons, Ionescu would love to win a national championship with this Oregon team.
"It would mean everything," she says. "Being a part of that with this group would be something I couldn't have ever imagined being done."
Ionescu says she'll be transparent with her plans.
"I'll talk to people," she says. "I'm not going to hide anything or do something behind anyone's back. (Graves) knows that. We're all on the same page."
Ionescu is on track to earn a degree next year. She is majoring in crime, law and society, with a minor in legal studies. Once her playing career is over, she'd be interested in coaching.
What would she like her legacy to be at Oregon?
"Someone who little girls and boys could look up to," she says. "To be a source of inspiration, and hopefully build something here that will last a long time and continue to grow."
Seems like that's a done deal, no matter what the future holds.
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