DUCKS KEEP LIVING THE DREAM
A question, Oregon basketball fans: Which story is more compelling?
Is it the way the Ducks' men discovered they can flummox opponents with defense and found a togetherness and toughness that was lacking a month ago?
Or is it that the Ducks women can overwhelm opponents with their offense, making defenses pick their poison, and then crushing hopes with daggers from distance or a perfect pass?
Fortunately, you don't need to choose.
Dana Altman's Oregon men will ride a 10-game winning streak into a 6:59 p.m. PT Thursday NCAA Sweet 16 date with No. 1-seeded Virginia at Louisvillie, Kentucky.
Kelly Graves' Oregon women bring their mission to the Moda Center on Friday (games are at 6 or 8:30 p.m.), where several familiar foes will try to derail the Ducks' Final Four dream.
Oregon, the No. 2 women's seed in the region, will be playing the winner of Monday's Syracuse-South Dakota State game. Mississippi State and Arizona State will play in Friday's other Portland regional semifinal. Oregon (31-4) is 5-0 this season against their potential Moda Center opponents.
"We're excited to go to Portland," Graves said after Sunday's 91-68 win over Indiana in Eugene. "We didn't talk about it too much as a team — we were really focused on taking it just one game at a time — but it's going to be a special thing to go up there."
The women's final game of the season at Matthew Knight Arena was special, too. Oregon dazzled and delighted their fans (attendance 6,729, after 6,523 on Friday). UO junior guard Sabrina Ionescu added to her national player of the year credentials with her eighth triple-double of the season. That extended her NCAA record, for women or men, to 18-career triple-doubles. She had 29 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds.
Impressive numbers, but they only begin to tell the story. Because every time Indiana made a push, Ionescu answered. Then she shrugged off questions about her performance (and about whether she'll leave after this season for the WNBA draft), focusing on how much fun she had playing with her teammates.
Indiana coach Teri Moren emphasized that Ionescu is only part of the challenge for Oregon foes.
"She may be the head of the snake. But she has people with her that are incredible as well," Moren said. "(Satou) Sabally, she's a 6-4 guard. Their length. Their size. They can take you in the low block, but then they stretch you out.
"(Ionescu) doesn't have to do it all on her own. That's what's unique about this basketball team. As good as she is, she doesn't have to carry the load. She has a lot of help."
The play of Sabally in the first two rounds (Oregon opened with a 78-40 win over Portland State) should have Ducks fans excited. If Sabally is making 3-pointers, rebounding, blocking shots and attacking the basket, the Ducks can be as close to unstoppable as any team in America.
"She's really the player that can separate us and make us into an elite team," Graves says. "There aren't many players in the country that can do what she does and impact the game in as many ways. So there's no question she's going to be one of the keys going forward."
The Ducks come to Portland hunting their first Women's Final Four. They are still one win shy of where they've gone the last two seasons, so there is unfinished business.
For Portland basketball fans, this weekend is a chance to see some special players on a mission. And if the Ducks are clicking, those who love crisp, unselfish basketball will see something special.
n As much fun as Sunday was for the Ducks and their fans, the injury to Indiana sophomore guard Bendu Yeaney was tough to see. The fabulous athlete was having a solid game in front of friends and family from Portland. Then Yeany, a St. Mary's Academy graduate, went down in the third quarter with what appeared to be an injury to her left Achilles tendon.
Moren said Yeaney had issues with her Achilles tendons throughout the season and continued to work on improving her flexibility. The Hoosiers probably weren't going to hang with the Ducks for 40 minutes, but Yeaney's injury was an unfortunate twist.
Yeaney was a key starter for the Hoosiers, averaging 9.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists (second on the team) with tenacious defense (team-high 51 steals).
"We know she's athletic, but her skill level has improved — off ball screens, whether she's floating to the basket or just attacking it, and just being more consistent," Moren said. "Where we need her to get more consistent is beyond the arc (.204 this season). We need that 3 to go down, and we need to see that thing go in more often for her. She continues to work, as all of our kids do. She always has the toughest assignment defensively for us. She probably has the highest basketball IQ on our team, as far as understanding the game and where the pieces around her need to be. She's a superb defender, and we missed her in the second half."
n Not long ago, the Oregon men couldn't hang with Oregon State. Kenny Wooten was a non-factor, and the Ducks lacked confidence and cohesion on both ends of the court. It was a team not worthy of the College Basketball Invitational.
Now, a mask-free Wooten has become Bill Russell (11 blocks over the first two NCAA Tournament wins), and the Ducks are two games from the Final Four.
A No. 12 seed, the Ducks are the only team not seeded No. 5 or better to reach the Sweet 16. Virginia, No. 2 in the top-25 polls, will be a challenge, but isn't a high-scoring outfit. If Payton Pritchard, Louis King and Wooten keep playing with a chip on their collective shoulder, and with the relaxed confidence of a gambler playing with house money, Oregon will continue to be a tough out.
So, pick your favorite Ducks basketball story. Better yet, don't limit yourself. Just enjoy the sweetness.
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