Sorely missing the Portland women's regional
This week was supposed to be the final act in the state of Oregon for Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally — an event I've looked forward to since Ionescu announced she would play her senior season for the Ducks.
On Saturday and Monday, the Portland regional of the NCAA Division I women's basketball tournament was going to happen at Moda Center, with Oregon's title contenders shooting for a return to the Final Four.
There was a chance UConn, the program that until a couple years ago was almost unbeatable, was going to be here, too. If things played out according to projected seeds, the Ducks and Huskies would be clashing at a raucous Moda with a trip to the Women's Final Four on the line.
The place would have been electric.
Let me be clear: We should not be gathering right now. I have been home for going on two weeks, and I'm fine with that — even without any sports to distract us from the harsh reality of this moment.
But, given what might have been for the Ducks (or maybe for Oregon State, if the bracket played out right), and for the region's basketball fans, I'm feeling the loss of sports much more acutely this weekend.
So too is Jim Etzel.
The CEO of Sport Oregon, Etzel's organization was a cohost of the regional along with Oregon State. He knows it would have been a special event, given the fervor for women's basketball in Oregon and the excitement surrounding a special Ducks team.
With his organization bidding to bring the Women's Final Four to Portland in 2025 or 2026, the regional was going to be another opportunity to show the region's passion to the basketball world. But the folks Etzel feels for are the players and coaches who invested so much in their seasons, and for the fans who were so excited to see what their teams could do in the tournament.
"We'll never know" how the tournament would have played out, Etzel said.
But that doesn't stop him contemplating what it would have been like to have the Ducks, or perhaps the Beavers, celebrating a regional championship in front of their fans.
"What a cool moment that would have been," Etzel said.
Had Ionescu, Hebard, Sabally and their teammates played to their potential, they would have left Moda Center on Monday with confetti in their hair, saluted one final time by Oregon's growing fan base.
Etzel is confident the loss of this regional won't hurt Portland's chances for more big-time events.
Attendance at the 2019 Portland regional totaled 22,862 over two sessions. That dwarfed the other regions and set a record for a West Coast women's basketball regional. When this year's tournament was called off, more than 11,000 tickets had been sold for the two sessions in Portland. That was a couple thousand ahead of last year, and with the Ducks looking like a championship contender, Etzel envisioned a crowd of more than 14,000 for Monday's regional final.
The buzz created by last season's regional convinced Etzel and his team to go after a Women's Final Four. Nine months later, Portland was announced as one of four finalists for the 2025 or 2026 event, competing with Phoenix, Columbus, Ohio and Tampa, Florida.
Several steps remain, including a July visit from the selection committee and a final presentation in September. The competition will be intense.
But Etzel can sell the passion for women's basketball in the Pacific Northwest. And, he can point out that in Portland, a Women's Final Four won't take a back seat to the Stanley Cup playoffs or the beginning of baseball season.
"If we're selected, everyone in Portland will know we're hosting the Final Four," Etzel promised.
Portland will host NCAA men's basketball first- and second-round games in 2022. Etzel and Sport Oregon are spearheading bids to bring future men's and women's basketball regionals here. There is also a bid to bring the NCAA volleyball Final Four to town.
Those events are thrilling in their own way. But there will never be a story quite like the one that Ionescu and the Ducks were writing. It wasn't only that they were playing championship-level basketball. It was the fun they seemed to have in the process.
A year ago, as the Ducks celebrated on the Moda Center court after a difficult four-point win over Mississippi State sent them to their first Final Four, assistant coach Jodie Berry explained to me that a cornerstone of the program is to focus on fun.
"We keep telling our kids to enjoy the moment. Play with joy. Play with love and passion," Berry said.
When the focus is on being together and having fun, she noted, talent and preparation will shine under the bright lights.
The lights are off this week. Togetherness is on hold.
That's disheartening. And I know the disappointment I'm feeling as an observer is only a fraction of what the athletes must be experiencing.
The challenges of the day put sports in perspective. There will always be more important things than sports.
But, for me, missing out on this Portland regional is a reminder that sports add much to the human drama, that special events and special teams don't come along every year.
When the lights come back on, I expect we will all appreciate such shared experiences a little bit more.
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