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ON COLLEGE HOOPS/BY PAUL DANZER/Powered by Ionescu, Ducks advance to championship round

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The Oregon Ducks celebrate after defeating Mississippi State 88-84 on Sunday at Moda Center to earn the school's first trip to the Final Four of womens basketball.As Sabrina Ionescu took her turn with the scissors, the "One more year" chant echoed around the Moda Center.

The good news for Ducks fans is the question of Ionescu's future — will she go to the WNBA or return to Oregon for her senior season? — can wait at least one more week.

Oregon coach Kelly Graves said before Sunday's showdown with Mississippi State that players of Ionescu's talent deserve the opportunity to cash in on it.

"In the bigger picture, I believe all of these young people, men and women, should be able to make that choice right out of high school," Graves said. "If I look at my son, who is a math whiz, if Microsoft came to him and said, 'We would love for you to come work for us, we'll pay you three million a year, whatever that salary is, but you can't go to college, you're going to be a pro,' we would encourage him to go. I don't know why it's any different with athletes."

If Sunday was Ionescu's last game in the state of Oregon, it was a fitting final act.

A year earlier, at the same Elite Eight crossroads, Ionescu tried to carry the Ducks on her own in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame.

When Sunday's fourth quarter started, the game was tied at 56, and one wondered whether history would weigh on the Ducks.

But rather than wilt under expectations, the Ducks put on an offensive clinic — making their final seven shots to emerge victorious in a battle worthy of its Elite title.

And they weren't surprised.

"We keep telling our kids to enjoy the moment. Play with joy. Play with love and passion," Ducks assistant coach Jodie Berry said as players, coaches and family members reveled in the 88-84 victory on the confetti covered court. "When you focus on the bigger picture of being together and having fun, we know we're pretty good at executing down the stretch when we need to. So our kids were terrific. They showed composure, played hard."

A few feet away, Lydia Giomi was holding the regional championship trophy and wearing a big smile. The 6-6 redshirt sophomore played fewer than six minutes as Graves went with his starting five and senior Oti Gildon the whole way.

Giomi said she never doubted that her Ducks would clear this hurdle, and that each basket in that remarkable fourth quarter gave her goose bumps.

There were plenty of them. The Ducks made 10 of 14 fourth-quarter shots, half of those from 3-point range. All four 3-point aces hit big shots down the stretch. And while Ionescu was the obvious focal point of Oregon's big finish, she had plenty of help.

No question, Oregon is in this position because Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally are elite college players. But it was appropriate that it was 5-10 senior Maite Cazorla who opened the regional final with a 3-pointer and finished it with another.

Cazorla is comfortable in the shadow of Ionescu. She didn't speak much English when she arrived in Eugene from Las Palmas, Spain, joining a program that had won only five NCAA Tournament games and had not reached the tournament in a decade.

On Sunday, her play spoke volumes.

"I was really glad that Maite stepped up tonight on this biggest stage because she's going to be a long-time pro and long-time Olympian for Spain," Graves said. "We're going to see her playing for many, many years."

• Truth is, players stepped up time and again for both the Ducks and Bulldogs. Coaches for both teams raved about the quality of the play as Oregon and Mississippi State shot a combined 51 percent and dished out 39 assists with only 14 turnovers. Given the intense defense and high-pressure environment, those numbers are remarkable.

Not that Elite Eight teams aren't the cream of the basketball crop, but it's truly special when teams perform at their best when it means the most.

"What's hopefully not lost in this — this was a great showcase for women's basketball today," Graves said. "The crowd was amazing. The people here at Portland did such an awesome job with the entire tournament. That was as well-played a basketball game as I think you're going to find anywhere. That is about as good as women's basketball can get."

In fact, Graves couldn't recall being part of a game that was played at a higher level.

Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, whose Bulldogs reached the national title game the previous two seasons, described his team's performance as phenomenal.

"You talk about competitive, tough. My team just fought tooth and nail (Sunday) in a really hostile environment," Schaefer said. "Credit to the community, for the people that came out supporting women's basketball. A great crowd (11,538) out there today. It's great for our game."

• This was only the seventh time in NCAA Tournament history that the Elite Eight featured the top two seeds in each region. On Sunday, the No. 2 seeds prevailed. Both Oregon and Connecticut, playing in Albany, New York, enjoyed passionate fan support. While that might feel unfair, Schaefer didn't complain.

"Our kids, we've been in that environment a bunch. We played on the road in the Southeastern Conference. It was a great environment. I was proud to be a coach in that game today, be a part of an industry, women's basketball," Schaefer said after the Ducks' victory. "Here is the thing. We probably could have played it somewhere else and been on a completely neutral floor and played in front of a thousand people. Do we want that or do we want to play in that environment today?"

• The Ducks, by the way, should send a big thank you to Oregon State. Big picture, the rise of Scott Rueck's program — which lost to Louisville in the Sweet 16 on Friday — showed it was possible to build a Willamette Valley program to challenge Tara VanDerveer's Stanford juggernaut.

More pertinent now, Oregon State was the host school for this Portland regional — and will be when it returns next March to Moda Center.

The Ducks might have broken through somewhere else. They have the talent to win the national title. But doing it in front of so many Oregon fans made it extra special.

"The crowd was great when we went on our runs. The floor was shaking," Ionescu said. "I got goose bumps a few times hearing them, how loud they are, supporting us. We're not taking that for granted."

After cutting the final strands off the net, Graves took a mic to thank the fans and remind them that his players are tremendous ambassadors for the University of Oregon. Those fans had made their appreciation felt at every big moment on Sunday.

"There were a few plays tonight when sound had feel. I mean, you could feel it down there on the court," Graves later said. "We didn't win because of the crowd. We won because we really executed well. (The crowd) was certainly a help, there's no question about that. I'm glad that we got to do this in front of them, truly, because they've been along for the whole ride."

The ride continues this week, 3,100 hundred miles from Eugene. Largely because Ionescu is so special, these Ducks have been talked about as a national championship contender all season. After the way Ionescu's running mates stepped up on Sunday, there is little reason to doubt the Ducks can go all the way.

• Graves is among those who hopes teams soon get a chance to play a Final Four on the West Coast — which has not happened since San Jose hosted it in 1999.

Buoyed by Ducks Fever, the Moda Center had almost 23,000 fans attend the regional semifinals and finals. Portland cannot play host to a men's Final Four — those are played only in domed football arenas.

Graves, for one, is convinced Portland deserves to host a women's Final Four.

"I truly would love to see Portland host a Final Four," Graves said. "We have two of the best fan bases right here in the country in Oregon State and Oregon. We had a third NCAA tournament team at Portland State. I think we're showing that we can support something like that here."

It won't happen until at least 2025. After Tampa this week, the next five Final Fours will take place in New Orleans, San Antonio, Minneapolis, Dallas and Cleveland.

Portland will host a regional again in 2020, with OSU again the host school. Whether or not Ionescu returns to Oregon for one more year, both the Ducks and the Beavers should be positioned to be a part of the fun.

• The Oregon women made all the crunch-time shots that the Oregon men missed in their Sweet 16 loss to a Virginia team that is in the Final Four after an improbable overtime win over Purdue in the Elite Eight.

On one hand, the Ducks men should be frustrated at failing to execute better. They had a lead with less than six minutes to play against Virginia and didn't hit another field goal.

On the other hand, the way the Ducks stuck together turned a season headed nowhere in early February into a memorable one cannot be overlooked.

Bol Bol has hired an agent and, as expected, is heading to the NBA. If Louis King and/or Kenny Wooten follow him to the pros, next season could be another Jekyll and Hyde ride for Ducks fans. If King and Wooten return, the Duck men of 2019-20 will be Final Four contenders.

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@pauldanzer


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