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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Now Oregon's standout junior forward faces doubly difficult challenge against tall Bears of Baylor

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ruthy Hebard of Oregon answers a question in the Ducks' locker room on Thursday at Tampa, Florida.TAMPA, Florida — The Oregon women's basketball team is doing its best to enjoy its first NCAA Final Four experience.

For junior forward Ruthy Hebard, one of the first highlights was being taken for a ride.

"We went on a boat ride and saw some dolphins. I love dolphins, so that was really fun," Hebard said, beaming her smile as she talked about the red-carpet treatment and the demands of Final Four weekend.

"Landing here and getting off the plane to the red carpet was fun," Hebard said. "It's just been cool to be around my team, seeing them happy and laughing."

Not that the Ducks aren't focused on what appears to be a sizable challenge from Baylor. It's just that enjoying the experience is one of the messages coach Kelly Graves had for his team.

And, in addition to battling 6-7 Baylor senior Kalani Brown and 6-4 junior Lauren Cox in Friday's 4 p.m. PT national semifinal, keeping the Ducks loose is one of Hebard's roles.

"I'm one of those people who's going to go with the flow. I'm one of the people on the team whose kind of lighthearted," she said. "I'm just enjoying the experience. I'm trying to get my teammates to enjoy it as well."

Adding to the enjoyment for Hebard is the knowledge that her season looked precarious after hurting her knee in the first half of the Feb. 18 game at Oregon State. Heading into Friday's game, she is as strong as she has been since the injury.

"It was a little scary when I tweaked it, of course. But going through it, I was real happy because I could run on it and jump on it, so I knew, okay, it's not that bad," she recalled. "Having teammates and trainiers that believed in me got me back and helped me emotionally."

Hebard believes her battle on Sunday with 6-7 Teaira McCowan of Mississippi State will help come Friday against the bigger Bears.

"I think it's a blessing that we played Mississippi State first and got prepared," Hebard said, "because Baylor has two elite post players. So just being able to take my physicality, take the rebounding and try not to get cheap fouls. That's what I'm taking from the experience."

Hebard arrived at Oregon in fall 2016, a far less recognized recruit than classmate Sabrina Ionescu. Hebard wasn't even certain she was ready to jump from high school ball in Fairbanks, Alaska, into Pac-12 competition.

"She was considering redshirting," Ionescu said. "That is just crazy to think about when you look at her now and how good she is."

Graves said the Ducks will need 40 minutes of "extreme effort" from Hebard on Friday.

"She's got her work cut out for her, whether she's guarding Cox or Brown or whomever inside. They're tremendous players, All-Americans," Graves said.

Hebard will have "to suck it up and do it like she's been doing," he added. "I thought she did a terrific job on Teaira McCowan last week. (Cal's) Kristine Anigwe is in our league; she's had to guard her, too. She'll hopefully get some help from the rest of the team."

But, "in the end, she's going to have to sit down there on that block and try to keep them as far away from the basket as possible."

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