Ducks' 'salt of the earth'
EUGENE — If there's a better example of small-town girl making it big than Ruthy Hebard, come on down.
The Fairbanks, Alaska, native is winding down her career at Oregon. After going 28-2 in the regular season, Hebard and the Ducks are the top seed for this week's Pac-12 tournament.
When the season ends — and the third-ranked Ducks hope that will be at the Final Four in New Orleans — Hebard will go down as one of the program's greatest players. The 6-4 senior is second on the career scoring list and third in rebounds, and with a remarkable field-goal percentage — it's now at .648 — will be the most accurate shooter in the school's history.
Together with point guard Sabrina Ionescu, Hebard has led Oregon to its third consecutive Pac-12 regular-season championship this season. Both will be named to the all-Pac-12 squad for the fourth straight year.
"They've been a great combination," Oregon coach Kelly Graves said. "They both realize they couldn't have done it with out each other. They're forever linked together — two Pac-12 icons."
Hebard was born in Chicago and adopted a few days later by a white couple, becoming the second of three children adopted by Alaskans John and Dorothy Hebard. In some ways, it was an idyllic childhood for Ruthy, who took to the region's outdoor activities with her two brothers.
"You could go outside and be with nature all the time," she said. "It was really fun to hang out with my brothers and family and go fishing, snow-machining and jet skiing. I love hiking. I love to swim and the lakes and all that kind of stuff."
Though she was always tall, basketball wasn't her sport right away.
"My dad played college hockey, so it was hockey first," she said. "We played soccer and tennis and kind of a jumble of all the sports. Basketball was the one that stuck with me."
Hebard was a three-time Alaska Gatorade State Player of the Year in high school, averaging 25.9 points, 15.1 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 2.1 blocks her senior season. She is the first player in West Valley High's history to get her jersey number retired. Even so, her accomplishments have to be put into context; there wasn't a lot of competition in Alaska.
"Ruthy was dominant, because she was 6-4, athletic and long in a state where you don't get a ton of excellent players," Graves said. "You could tell she was still fairly raw."
Oregon won the battle for Hebard's services, and it wasn't easy. She received more than 80 scholarship offers.
"It was closer to home, closer to family, and the great teammates and the program they had here were inspiring to me," she said. "When I came my unofficial (visit) here, I felt like this was home, a place I could flourish in. It was nice to see how much our freshman class helped this program."
Ionescu was part of that class. So were three other post players — Lydia Giomi, Mallory McGwire and Sierra Campisano.
"We didn't know exactly how it was going to work out," Graves said. "We offered a redshirt that first year to any of the four who would take it. Smartly on her part, and fortunately on our part, Ruthy said no."
All of them said no. But Giomi hurt her hand and wound up redshirting that season. After two seasons at Oregon, McGwire and Campisano transferred to other schools.
Said Graves: "Ruthy had clearly beaten them out, and with the emergence of Satou (Sabally) at the 4, they saw the handwriting on the wall."
Hebard earned all-Pac-12 honors as a freshman in 2016-17, leading Oregon in scoring (14.9 points per game) and rebounds (8.5) while fronting the conference in field-goal percentage at .588. Did that kind of immediate success surprise her?
"A little bit," she said. "I didn't know what to expect, but I knew I was going to go out there and compete every day. As games and practices went on, my confidence grew and I was like, 'Maybe I can hang with some of these girls.'"
The following summer, she helped the U.S. U-19 team to a silver medal at the World Championships in Italy, averaging 11.0 points and 8.0 rebounds over seven games.
It's been onward and upward ever since. As a sophomore, she won the Katrina McClain Award as the nation's top power forward. During that season, Hebard set an NCAA record by making 33 consecutive field-goal attempts. She was perfect in five games with seven or more attempts, going 12 for 12 twice and 10 for 10, 9 for 9 and 7 for 7 once each.
"I didn't think about (the streak), at least not until people started talking about it," said Hebard, who led the Pac-12 and was second in the nation that season, shooting .660. "I was just playing the games and really happy with the shots I was making. Then someone said, 'You know that is (an NCAA) consecutive field-goal record?' I didn't know that, thank you. Now I'm going to try to keep it going. It was a fun run."
As a junior, Hebard averaged 16.1 points and 9.1 rebounds and shot .670 from the floor, second-best in the NCAA. This season, she leads the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage (.678) and rebounds (9.6) and is fifth in scoring (16.9).
Hebard's shooting percentage is so high because she is an outstanding finisher. She works in concert with Ionescu on the pick-and-roll to near perfection.
"The numbers speak for themselves," Graves said. "She's automatic. She has great hands, great touch around the rim. Before, she was all right hand/left shoulder, but now she can finish with either hand. Her footwork is impeccable inside, and so is her ability to roll to the basket.
"She understands the pick-and-roll. Not everybody gets that, but she does. She's good with angles, good with positioning. And she does her work early, so the basket is a byproduct of it. She's a good shot-maker in traffic, which is a really critical skill."
Hebard has benefited from playing with Ionescu, the national player of the year as a junior and the expected No. 1 pick in the upcoming WNBA draft.
"It's so fun to play alongside her, to be able to see her grow and get all the accolades and awards, because she deserves them," Hebard said. "She's such a hard worker. She has pushed me since we got on campus together to get better. I wouldn't be the player I am today without her."
Hebard also gives a salute to Oregon's coaching staff, including assistants Mark Campbell, Jodie Berry and Xavier Lopez.
"I've been so blessed to have these coaches as a part of my life," she said. "On and off the court, they've been great motivators. Having coaches you truly love makes you want to play harder, and makes you want to win for them. They've been role models for me."
The feeling is mutual with the coaches.
"Ruthy is salt of the earth — a great teammate, incredibly humble," Graves said. "What strikes people about her is her infectious smile and easy-going personality. She has every reason to be uppity or cocky, but I always say, she's the most humble superstar I've ever seen."
Hebard will finish her degree in journalism this term. One day, she hopes to be a writer. That's likely at least a few years in the future. She is projected to be a first-round pick in the WNBA draft.
"I'm really excited," she said. "It's going to be sad leaving (Oregon). But it's the next step, something that I've been working for for so long. Hopefully, I can make a name for myself in the WNBA."
For now, there is more immediate business to attend to. The Ducks are one of the favorites to contend for the NCAA championship. Will the season be a disappointment if they don't win it all?
"No, it won't," Hebard said. "That's our ultimate goal. It's going to be sad if we don't. But it's been so fun all season. I wouldn't take back what my teammates and I have been through, winning and losing together. It will never disappoint me as a family. We've grown here."
Asked what she likes to do outside of basketball, Hebard said this:
"I like to listen to music. I like to read and write a lot. I like anything with liveliness and happiness. I like to go bug my teammates and annoy them or just hang out with them — to be around people and have fun."
Graves chuckles when read Hebard's comments.
"That's her," the UO coach said. "That's how she lives her life. She has tremendous parents. I credit them a lot. She is the kind of person you want to spend time around.
"Even when I get on her, she'll give me that smile and put her arm around me. She knows I'm doing it for effect most of the time. I don't have to get on her much. She works her ass off. She does that on her own every day. She's been an absolute dream to coach. It's been a blessing."
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