An Oregon effort worth saluting
EUGENE — It's not often that the No. 3-ranked team in the country gets run over by a truck.
That's what happened Thursday night at Matthew Knight Arena, though, with Stanford the bloody victim.
No. 6-ranked Oregon spotted the Cardinal (15-2, 4-1 in Pac-12 play) a 17-13 lead after one quarter, then steamrolled them en route to an 87-55 undressing.
This was a script made for Hollywood. UO senior Sabrina Ionescu scored a career-high 37 points and became the Ducks' career scoring leader in what she considered the most complete team game of her college career.
"That's the best game we've played this year," said Ionescu, the National Player of the Year last season. "I don't think I've played on a team that played that well and with that much fire over 40 minutes."
For 18, at least. Stanford scored the first seven points of the third quarter to go ahead 37-36. From that point, the Ducks (14-2, 4-1) were a Caterpillar on steroids, the Cardinal messy roadkill. Oregon outscored Stanford 51-18 over the final 18 minutes.
The sellout crowd of 12,228 had an impact on Stanford's play, guard Kiana Williams said.
"We let the crowd get into the game," Williams said.
And when the fans roared as the Ducks seized control in the second half, the Cardinal — who start two freshmen and a sophomore — wilted.
That was the plan, Oregon coach Kelly Graves said.
"We talked to the kids about it before the game," Graves told me afterward. "They're a young team. When they got behind and the crowd got going, they got rattled. That was one of our goals. We wanted to make (the raucous atmosphere) a factor, and it was."
Ionescu and the Ducks started slowly, falling behind 15-8 while missing their first seven 3-point shots. Ionescu was 2 for 8 from the field and 1 for 5 from 3-point range in the first quarter.
After that, the 5-11 point guard got serious. She finished 14 for 26 from the field, including 5 for 12 from the 3-point line. She grabbed 11 rebounds and dished seven assists. She didn't have a turnover after the first quarter.
"She seems to find ways do it on nights like this," Graves said. "When her best is needed, that's when she usually steps up. She has that 'nuther level to go to. And thank goodness the rest of the team went with her when she did.
"The second quarter, we started to establish who we are, and the third quarter was when we really put the hammer down. That's as good a defensive quarter as we've had this season. It starts with Sabrina. She was magical in a lot of different ways."
Or as Stanford coach Tara Vanderveer put it: "They had Sabrina; we didn't. She's like the golfer who can hit the long-range ball but also has a great short game. She has it all."
It wasn't a one-woman show for Oregon, though. Junior forward Satou Sabally collected 18 points and 11 rebounds. Senior center Ruthy Hebard had 11 points and five boards, and senior guard Minyon Moore made Williams work hard for her 15 points. The Ducks forced 18 turnovers and limited Stanford to four offensive rebounds.
"They're very talented, very well-coached and they play very well together," said Vanderveer, who has won 1,082 games and two national championships and has had 12 Final Four teams in her 35 seasons at Stanford. "They have a lot of experience, and we are inexperienced. They did what they should be doing. This could be a very important lesson for our team, if we learn it."
As she left the floor late in the game with the victory secure, Ionescu saluted. To whom?
"Stanford, to be honest," she said with a smile.
The Cardinal, who had won three straight in Eugene before Thursday, have collected 15 Pac-10/12 championships under Vanderveer's watch. They've been an NCAA Tournament team every year since 1986-87, Vanderveer's second season at the helm.
"Stanford is the standard by what we're judged," Graves said. "Any time you can beat them, it's a feather in your cap."
Oregon got the Cardinal good last season, beating them 88-48, the most one-sided home loss in Vanderveer's career.
"Tonight mirrors the one in Palo Alto," Graves told me. "Just one of those nights where we had it dialed in at both ends of the floor."
But the Cardinal knocked off Oregon 64-57 in the Pac-12 tournament title game last season. The Ducks remembered.
"Our kids circled this game," Graves said. "They wanted this one."
The victory meant more to Ionescu than did the career-high 37 points, or the UO career scoring record. Ionescu has scored 2,265 points, bettering the old mark (2,252) set by Alison Lang from 1980-84.
"It's honoring and humbling to be able to be at the top," Ionescu began. Then: "It doesn't mean much."
"I'm happy we won tonight,"she said. "We have bigger plans and bigger team goals. I'm not focused on any one individual goal. Later on in life, I'll take a step back and really appreciate that. Right now, I'm focused on too many things."
Oregon began the season with an ultimate goal of winning the national championship. Sometimes — as in the exhibition victory over Team USA and Thursday's win over Stanford — the Ducks look the part. Last weekend's split with Arizona and Arizona State? Not so much.
"We didn't play great in either game last weekend," Graves said. "Tonight is just one game. We hope we can build on it, be a little more consistent in our effort.
"The effort is what did it tonight. We've played some great basketball. We're capable of beating anybody in the country on any given night. But we have lulls. We've had some down games, some games where we didn't play as hard, weren't nearly as focused, and it's hurt us.
"It's a high bar that's been set. We need to play to it regardless of the competition — just keep playing with that energy. And I think we will."
Stanford now heads to Corvallis to play eighth-ranked Oregon State (15-1, 3-1) at noon Sunday. Does a visit to play the Oregon schools rank as the toughest road trip in the nation this season?
"This year, it probably is," Vanderveer said. "That's what I told our team (after Thursday's game). We don't have time to have a little pity party. You have to turn around and play Oregon. They're a terrific team, too."
Vanderveer meant Oregon State. You can forgive the Freudian slip; the veteran coach still had Ducks on her mind.
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