Ducks' Graves: 'We were the best team in the country'
They won't complete their unfinished business of bringing a national championship to Eugene, but women's basketball coach Kelly Graves said believes the accomplishments of his 2019-20 Oregon Ducks rank with some of the best the sport has seen.
"I'll just say it: I think we were the best team in the country. We were playing as well, if not better, than anybody," Graves said during a Friday press conference at Matthew Knight Arena. "We obviously had a mission, and we had a reason to really want to get this done. It's unfortunate that that's taken away, but it certainly won't take away in the long run from all the great memories that we had and the things that we accomplished."
Graves said he "sees the bigger picture" and understands why the tournament was canceled. He appreciated a "gracious and apologetic" Friday call from NCAA President Mark Emmert.
The Ducks finished 31-2, ranked No. 2 behind 32-1 South Carolina in both national polls. They won the Pac-12 regular-season title for the third year in a row and the Pac-12 tournament for the second time in three years.
And they did it in dominating fashion. In what turned out to be their last game together, Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard, Satou Sabally and their teammates routed a good Stanford team 89-56 in Sunday's Pac-12 championship game at Las Vegas, Nev. — their 19th consecutive victory.
"This team will always be remembered — maybe now for a couple of reasons — but certainly because of the special people they are individually, and then the greatness of this group collectively," Graves said.
Graves was on a recruiting trip when he learned the NCAA Tournament was canceled.
"I'm trying personally to get over this and move on to what's next. But there's always going to be a hole in my heart for this group of seniors," Graves said.
Those players were not at Thursday's press conference. Graves gave the team this week off from basketball, and the team's stars were not in Eugene, according to the coach.
Graves said he'd been in touch with Ionescu, Hebard and Sabally either by phone or text message.
"They're all processing it in their own way, and they're obviously all disappointed," Graves said.
He met Friday with seven players who are in Eugene this week. His message:
"It's okay to grieve, and take your time. But one of the things we learn as athletes, and certainly as coaches (is) it's part of my DNA to move on. When we lose a game — 'Hey, what do we do to win tomorrow?'"
Of course, there's nothing to be done for the foreseeable future. All team activities are on hold, and the NCAA has imposed a recruiting blackout period through April 15.
The legacy of this Oregon team will live on in the teams that follow, Graves said. But even without that national championship as a crowning achievement, Ionescu, Hebard and Sabally — each expected to be a high first-round draft pick in the next WNBA draft — leave Oregon as women's basketball icons.
"This won't ever happen again. There won't be another group like this one, ever," Graves said. "We might have equally impressive teams. But what this group did to capture the imagination and the attention and the love of a brand new fan base is really, really incredible."
Ionescu and Hebard led the way in growing the program from one that struggled to attract 2,000 fans into one that regularly filled Matthew Knight Arena with 12,000.
"When we look back, it's still an incredible season," Graves said. "Incredible what they did, not just winning and that kind of stuff, but the attention they brought to basketball.
"I don't know if there's been a women's basketball team, outside of UConn and a couple of their special, special teams, that have gotten the kind of attention that this team has nationally — not just from women's basketball fans and our core constituency, but men's basketball fans, NBA players. I think it's unprecedented, quite frankly."
The sadness goes beyond the lost chance to chase a championship. Graves said he feels for the team's fans, especially for the much-anticipated chance to play an NCAA regional in Portland's Moda Center.
"I'm sad we didn't get to showcase women's basketball to the country in Portland. I think the crowds there this year would have smashed whatever we got last year. And Portland's one of the finalists for a future (women's) Final Four. The more opportunities we have to showcase what a great basketball state this is I think helps, maybe, get that Final Four bid."
Graves said his son Will, a sophomore on Gonzaga's men's basketball team that, like the Ducks, was ranked second in the nation, is doing well and knows he will get other opportunities. Graves said his son got emotional about the lost opportunity for the Zags seniors to chase that program's first national title.
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