Even in defeat, Ducks forward Grace VanSlooten draws eyes from Knight, Ionescu
In one of the most competitive women's basketball games of the young season, North Carolina defeated Oregon 85-79 over the course of 40 minutes in a battle of two top-20 teams in the opening game of the Phil Knight Invitational on Thursday afternoon at the Chiles Center.
The 2022 event is the first of its namesake to include women competing alongside the men's brackets. This year's tournament's honor the Nike founder's 85th birthday. Knight, who sat courtside for the opening game of women's play, was not unnoticed by the team from Chapel Hill, particularly Tar Heels coach Courtney Banghart.
"I saw him (Phil Knight) walk in," Banghart said. "I walked out of the locker room, and I saw him, so he was right in front of me. I literally walked back into the locker room, I was like, 'I am not walking onto the court with Phil Knight. I went back into the locker room and waited about three minutes.
"I've coached in front of Barack Obama, which is not to say Phil Knight is Barack Obama, but talk about two people who have really championed equality of women and people of impact, it's really fortunate," Banghart continued. "He's sitting there, we know Oregon is his school, but we know bigger than that he's a sports fan and how much he's contributed to the game. But I know that when I got out there I was like, 'Yup, Phil Knight is here, so it would be great if we could honor his legacy with how we do what we do.'"
Oregon coach Kelly Graves had a playful retort after the game about Knight sitting courtside at the Chiles Center.
"Well, (Phil) is part of Oregon, he's family to us," Graves said. "I don't think we get too shook up. I don't know, did you?"
"No," said Ducks' freshman forward Grace VanSlooten.
"I think more important was Sabrina (Ionescu) over there," Graves said. "To them, she's the real star. Courtney, I'm really impressed by her team and all that, but Phil is ours. You've got MJ (Michael Jordan), that's enough."
VanSlooten, who recorded 17 points on 8-of-13 shooting, received praise from Knight and another member of Oregon royalty.
Ionescu, who recently joined the program as a director of athletic culture, sat next to Knight during the game. For players such as VanSlooten, continuing to see Ionescu support the team from the sideline means the world.
"Kelly said it, when I see Sabrina I'm still kind of star struck," VanSlooten said. "I'm still getting used to seeing her around. She's a legend around Oregon, and to have her at our games and have her around, it means a lot and she's somebody that I look up to a lot. She's a great leader and everything like that, so I'm going to do everything I can to learn from her."
Graves also had words of praise for VanSlooten's effort in the defeat.
"The last three or four years I've coached some of the best players in the country, and four players picked in the top eight (in the WNBA Draft)," Graves said. "This one right here can be right up there with them. In fact, Sabrina after the game, it was the first thing she said to me, and she's seen us play a couple of times. And speaking of Phil, he's seen us play a couple of times, he was really impressed, she's fun to watch. There really isn't much she can't do out on the court."
The Tar Heels were led by the scoring of Eva Hodgson and Alyssa Ustby. The duo combined for 40 points, as well as the floor generalship of junior guard Deja Kelly with 17 points, seven assists and four rebounds.
Oregon was buoyed by the efforts of VanSlooten, and guard Te-Hina Paopao with 18 points, four rebounds, and two assists.
It was a game that the Ducks largely controlled until the final quarter of play. After giving up a 9-8 lead, Oregon took over and played inspired basketball, leading UNC by as many as 12 points in the first half. Going into the fourth quarter however, the Tar Heels took a 56-55 lead at the buzzer.
From there, the two teams went back and forth, Oregon getting outscored 29-24 in the final stanza. Part of Oregon's downfall was a bevy of turnovers; 18 for the team at large, eight from the usual judicious Endyia Rogers.
Oregon (4-1) will face Michigan State (6-1) in the consolation game at 10 a.m. Sunday at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The Spartans were soundly beaten by Iowa State 80-49 in the other Invitational game played on Thanksgiving Day.
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