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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Oregon's former tomboy/football player is 'a special, special talent,' raves Baylor coach Kim Mulkey on eve of battle with Ducks

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu dribbles around a chair as practice begins Thursday in Tampa, Florida, for the Ducks, who will meet Baylor on Friday in the NCAA Final Four.TAMPA, Florida — When Sabrina Ionescu leads the Oregon women's basketball team onto the Amalie Arena court Friday, it will be a far cry from the place she fell in love with the game as a elementary school girl in Walnut Creek, California.

But from another perspective, taking on No. 1-ranked Baylor in the NCAA Division I women's basketball Final Four isn't all that different for Ionescu from those kid games.

And that pure thrill-of-the-battle personality trait has allowed Ionescu to grow since arriving in Eugene and changing the course of Ducks women's basketball.

Reflecting on how far she and her Ducks have come in three seasons, the 5-11 guard on Friday noted that the seven losses Oregon suffered in her freshman season were more that she experienced in four seasons at Miramonte High.

Though she often makes the game look easy, leading the Ducks to their first Final Four has been all about embracing challenges. Losing seven games as a freshman was one of those hurdles.

"We lost seven. Having to fight that and just sticking with it and believing in the system and believing my coaches, believing in who we have here and continuing to grow from that," Ionescu said. "We continued to grow, and I just tried to do everything I could to be the best teammate I could be. To be coachable and to be a voice in the community, someone that kids and girls can look up to.

"Embracing that role that I have as a student-athlete has helped me get to this position. Enjoying that platform that I have and really just continuing to love to play basketball like I did when I was back in the third and fourth grade."

Back then, Ionescu wasn't only hooping it up.

"I was a tomboy. I played every sport, whether it was football, baseball, soccer, but not religiously," she said.

What was Sabrina Ionescu the football player like?

"I played literally every position. I liked playing safety because I could anticipate any ball and then I'd be able to touch it," she said. "I liked playing receiver if there was a good quarterback. If there wasn't, then I would play quarterback."

Ionescu says basketball became her passion organically. Her parents had immigrated from Romania before she and twin brother Eddy were born, and her parents didn't know about basketball or the youth sports scene.

"My parents didn't really know any better, so they didn't put any pressure on me to play," she said. "They didn't force the ball into my hand, and I think that's what really helped me to fall in love with the game."

In elementary school, she wore basketball shoes and shorts to school, and usually had a basketball with her. 

"I played with the guys. I wore basketball shoes to school. I had basketball wallpaper, Golden State Warriors tickets all over my room. Posters. I had a Chris Paul poster that I won at a free-throw contest. Everything was just basketball from that point on," she said.

That passion is a big part of the story of Oregon's climb from mid-level Pac-12 program to Final Four participant. Ionescu's famous competitive fire is, too.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey raved Friday about Ionescu's skill but said the Duck's competitive grit is what really impresses.

"The thing that I love more than her talent is I love the way she competes," Mulkey said. "She's got that umph in her. She makes everybody around her better. She's just a special, special talent."

The fire in Ionescu was further stoked by falling a game short of the Final Four in her first two seasons at Oregon — though even she didn't see the Elite Eight coming in her freshman season.

She remembers contemplating a spring break trip with friends to Hawaii.

"We were making spring break plans. We didn't think we'd make an Elite Eight run that year. It was kind of funny to see that we kept winning and it was like, "Oh well, we've got to cancel our plans over spring break. From that moment on, when we had that little taste of the Elite Eight, we saw how fun it was, and we never made spring break plans."

A year ago, Ionescu got a close-up view of the Final Four because she was on hand for awards events even though the Ducks lost to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. The experience was seared in her brain.

"It was just me and the coaches that were here. I told them we were going to come back here and we were going to come back as a team," Ionescu said. "It wasn't fun coming alone, seeing the teams you played, seeing the buses get escorted while you're standing on the street watching. I remember that like it was yesterday."

If the Ducks upset Baylor on Friday, Ionescu will be a big reason. It wouldn't take anything special, she said.

"It is just another game. We've prepared the same," Ionescu said. "We're going to be mentally ready and focused just like we would if it was any other game. We've been doing that all year, starting in preseason. We took those games seriously because we were preparing for moments like these."

Ionescu is looking forward to having some serious fun on the floor Friday.

"We're not going to change who we are," she said. "We're going to enjoy the moment, but also be serious."

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