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Kerry Eggers on Sports/Portland Tribune/Women's basketball coach back for more with top-ranked Ducks

PMG FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon coach Kelly Graves hugs star guard Sabrina Ionescu on the Ducks' way to the NCAA Final Four last season. EUGENE — Kelly Graves played basketball until he could play no more. Then he became a coach.

That's worked out pretty well. Graves is set to begin his sixth season as Oregon's women's coach with a team that will be among the favorites to claim the NCAA championship in 2019-20. Graves' Ducks went 33-5 in each of the last two seasons, won back-to-back Pac-12 championships and reached the Elite Eight in 2018 and the Final Four last season.

Oregon returns four starters, including national player of the year Sabrina Ioenescu. The Ducks have added a plethora of talented players, among them 6-5 redshirt freshman Nyara Sabally, grad transfer Minyon Moore and prize recruit Jaz Shelley from Australia. It's the deepest team Graves has fielded at Oregon.

"We have a lot of versatility, we have depth everywhere on the roster, and we have experience as well," he said in a recent interview at his Casanova Center office. "And now (the players) are hungry. They've had a taste of the Final Four. They want to get back and do even more this next go-round."

And that would be ... a national title?

"We're certainly capable," Graves said. "Whether we win or not remains to be seen. It's hard to do. There are a lot of good teams. We need to follow the 'three H's' — stay humble, hungry and healthy."

Graves, 56, grew up in the Salt Lake City area, the youngest of three children of Joe and Diane Graves. Joe — a college professor and a University of Utah grad — was a devout fan of the Utes.

"Dad is the reason I'm in basketball today," Kelly Graves said. "We went to every (basketball) game when I was a kid. He was an usher there. I'd go early with him and sit down in the front row and watch the teams warm up, and we'd stay late. We'd listen to the postgame show on the way home. I was an usher myself for a while, and I sold concessions at football games for years. Those were great times. I loved being there."

Graves was a 6-5 guard who, after two years playing at Ricks JC (now Brigham Young-Idaho), played his final two seasons at New Mexico for coach Gary Colson from 1985-87.

"I wasn't good enough for Utah — (the Utes) didn't want me — and there was no way I would have gone to BYU," Graves said. "In a Utah household, that was forbidden. I really liked Gary. We stay in touch to this day. I liked his approach to coaching, and it was a great program."

The Lobos played their home games at University Arena, nicknamed the "Pit." McArthur Court — Oregon's home arena from 1926 to 2011 — was called the "Pit" in later years because it was aging and decrepit. University Arena, where the Lobos still play, gets its nickname because "it literally is a pit," Graves says.

"You walk in at the top level and it's a big hole in the ground," he said. "It was amazing. There are no pro sports in New Mexico, so it was a crazy atmosphere. I don't think we ever played before less than a sellout crowd (18,018 in those years). The fans are rabid, they're right on top of you, and as a home team at 5,300-foot elevation, with a raucous crowd and a good team, we were tough to beat."

Graves ended his playing career with an 85-82 National Invitation Tournament loss to Oregon State in Albuquerque's "Pit" in 1987. The Beavers, led by freshman guard Gary Payton, won when guard Eric Knox — now girls basketball coach at Class 6A champion Benson High — "hit a desperation, double-clutch 3-pointer off the glass over me at the buzzer," Graves said with a smile. "Eric and I have had a good laugh about it since, but it was a tough way to go out."

Thinking he was going to be an attorney like his brother, Todd, Graves took the LSAT as a senior, "but I did so poorly, they wanted me to take it again," he said. "I decided that was God's way of telling me I should do something else other than law."

Graves stayed on as a grad assistant with Colson for a year, then launched into a coaching career that took him to the University of Portland as an assistant under Jim Sollars for four years (1992-96), the last three in which the Pilots reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

"I loved it there," Graves says. "I value that as one the favorite places I've coached. It was my first D-I job. Coach Sollars taught me a lot about the balance between work and life. It was a good place to start ... that was the golden era of Portland (women's) basketball, and it was where I cut my teeth."

Graves' wife, Mary, is a Portland native and St. Mary's Academy grad.

"Portland is dear to my heart," Kelly says. "It's where I met Mary. Our first two kids were born there. We bought our first home in the Sellwood area. I love Portland. It's my favorite city."

Graves left for West Coast Conference rival Saint Mary's for one year as an assistant before taking over as head coach in 1997. In three years under Graves, the Gaels went 66-26 overall and 30-12 in WCC play, advancing to the NCAA Tournament his second year and tying for the league title his final season.

Kelly then moved on to Gonzaga, where he was WCC coach of the year eight times in 14 years. The Bulldogs dominated the league for the last decade of his time in Spokane (2004-14), claiming 10 straight regular-season championships and six postseason tournament titles. The Zags had eight straight seasons of 24 or more wins, made the NCAA Tournament seven times and got to the Elite Eight in 2011 — that as a No. 11 seed, the lowest ever to make a regional final.

"And we did it in a pretty good league," Graves offered. "In a few of those years, our conference RPI was better than the Pac-12's (actually the Pac-10 for most of those years). We had something going really good. My last seven or eight years was probably the best stretch of any mid-major (women's program) in history.

"But believe me, it wasn't that good at the start. My first year, we went 0-14 in conference, and don't let the record fool you — we weren't that good. It was pretty ugly. But we recruited the right players. The first group that spent four years under me finished 14-0 in conference and 28-4 overall (in 2004-05). That was the first of our 10 straight championships. It was a magical ride."

Graves might not have taken the Oregon job, succeeding Paul Westhead in 2014, if not for his state-of-Oregon connection. For years, his family has had a vacation home at Black Butte.

"It was the only place in the Pac-12 I'd have left (Gonzaga) for," Graves says. "I had some other opportunities, but I was waiting for this. Gonzaga was a special place. But I'm glad I made the move. I love the people here. I love the state of Oregon.

"I wanted a place where I could build a championship program, and we've been able to do that here. We have all the resources, the facilities, the conference, the brand. Really, nothing is missing that would enable us to win it all."

Under Graves, the Ducks struggled the first season, but went 24-11 and made the WNIT the second year (2015-16).

"We maximized our potential that year, got everything out of that group we could," he said. "That laid the groundwork for what came after."

An excellent recruiting class in 2016 was led by Ionescu and center Ruthy Hebard, both seniors next season for the Ducks. Ionescu already is the stuff of legends in women's college basketball.

"What I've learned over the last few months is she runs in a whole different circle than I do," Graves said. "She gets a phone call from Kobe Bryant, who invites her out to coach his daughter's team. She gets a shout-out from Steph Curry. She's hanging out in the Warriors' locker room. She's hanging out at the ESPYs."

Graves likes Sabrina the person as much as Sabrina the player.

"She handles the attention she gets with humility and grace," he says. "She's phenomenal in compartmentalizing all the attention she gets. And every day, she's in the gym, working hard. That's tough to do, especially at her young age. She's so mature, so competitive, so willing to get better and do whatever she can for her teammates. She truly is the epitome of what you want to be as an athlete."

Though she was the likely No. 1 pick for the WNBA draft — and would have made some nice money playing in Europe next season, too — Ionescu decided to return to school for her senior season with a national championship in mind.

"She had dropped hints throughout the season," Graves said. "However, we left Tampa (the Final Four site) on Saturday morning after we lost to Baylor. She stayed back with her family, who had flown in, to watch Monday's championship game. There was a 48-hour period when I didn't know who had her ear. I was happy and relieved when she did say she was going to come back."

Oregon returns three players on the 15-player all-Pac-12 team — Ionescu, Hebard and junior forward Satou Sabally — along with junior forward Erin Boley, who shot .430 from 3-point range last season. "Perhaps the best shooter in the country," Graves said.

The Ducks are adding plenty of talent, including:

• Nyara Sabally — Satou's younger sister — from Germany. She sat out last season after undergoing knee surgery. Nyara was the MVP of the U18 European Championships in 2017.

Graves: "Satou is mainly a perimeter player — more finesse. Nyara likes to bang. She has a big body. She's strong, she's active and she's skilled. She's very creative. Most of the people in Germany feel Nyara is probably the better prospect. That's hard to believe, because Satou is pretty darn good, but I think Nyara is going to have a great career."

• 5-8 senior Moore, who was a Pac-12 all-defensive team pick last year for Southern Cal.

Graves: "She was a big 'get' for us. Minyon does exactly what we need. She can spell Sabrina at the point. She's an elite competitor. She gets after people. Maite (Cazorla, a departing senior) was our best perimeter defender last year, and Minyon will step right into that role. She'll create. She can get into the paint on anybody. And now she has a lot of weapons around her — snipers on the perimeter and a hammer inside (Hebard) who can finish. I would anticipate her assists numbers will go off the charts."

• 5-9 true freshman Jaz Shelley, who led Australia to the gold medal at the 2016 U-17 World Championships as a 16-year-old.

Graves: "Jaz was one of the two or three top point guards in the world last year. She is phenomenal. She would be able to come in and fill Maite's spot right away. We expect a lot from her. She's going to have a big-time career."

• 6-7 freshman Sedona Prince, a transfer from Texas. Prince sat out last season after suffering a broken leg while playing for the U.S. U18 national team in the Americas Championships. The former McDonald's All-American visited Connecticut and Notre Dame before choosing the Ducks. She has applied for a waiver with the NCAA but might have to sit out the 2019-20 season.

Graves: "She's a great athlete for a 6-7 player. She can dunk off one or two feet quite easily. She has great hands and a good feel for the game. If she's eligible, we'll have depth inside as well as outside."

Graves is charismatic and accommodating, with an affable personality that makes him popular with players, fans and the media.

"I've never taken myself too seriously," he said. "A lot of coaches do. I guess I got a lot of that from my dad. He was a very outgoing guy, one of the few Democrats in Salt Lake City."

Joe Graves — who died in 2013 — acted in many theatrical productions in Utah as an adult.

"He was always the villain because he had a great voice," Kelly said. "I acted in some stuff in high school, too, and in some plays at Pioneer Theater. I enjoyed it. But I was never a feature actor. I was some guy who had a line or two."

When Kelly was in fourth grade, his mother died of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome.

"I got my love of life from my mother," Graves said. "My dad remarried after a few years, but I was never quite as close to my stepmom."

Kelly's three sons have followed him into basketball. Max, the oldest, was recently offered a position with the Dallas Mavericks in player development. Jack is an assistant coach with the Lane Community College women's basketball team and coaches an AAU club team. Will, the youngest, is a 6-5 sophomore who will walk on with the Oregon men's team next season.

"My wife and three sons are a big part of what we do here (with Oregon women's basketball)," Kelly said. "They're into this as much as I am. They're really close to my players. I tell everybody, Mary is the best assistant coach I've ever had.

"I love what I do. I love my (players). They're like my extended family."

Graves said the most rewarding thing about coaching is "the lifelong relationships that you build." In recent years, he has found himself scouting and recruiting daughters of his former players.

"It's fun for me to watch that next generation," he said. "That kind of stuff is important. We're not just in it to win games and to build a great program. We talk in terms of family, and that truly is who we are and how we think around here.

"When you choose to become a Duck, you're part of my family and our basketball family for life. Good or bad, you're in it for life with us."

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