With Kobe Bryant's death, UO b-ball sweep comes with dose of 'reality'
CORVALLIS — Heavy hearts can be hard to carry, but Sabrina Ionescu and friends completed the task in marvelous fashion Sunday, Jan. 26, at Gill Coliseum.
Two hours after learning of the death of Kobe Bryant, Ionescu-led Oregon began the process of taking care of business against arch-rival Oregon State, eventually claiming a 66-57 victory and a sweep of the two-game Civil War series.
After the Ducks' 76-64 win at Eugene on Friday night, the fourth-ranked Ducks made it a crusade to complete the sweep in Corvallis, where they hadn't won since 2010.
"Nobody on my team or (coaching) staff had won here since we got to Oregon (in 2014), so that was a big deal," UO coach Kelly Graves said after Sunday's game.
But, as Graves noted, the win "was bittersweet."
Everything changed with the stunning passing of Kobe Bryant, 41, who died in a helicopter crash in Southern California along with daughter Gianna, 13, and seven others.
The world mourned Bryant's death, but only a few could call him a friend. One of those was Sabrina Ionescu.
Ionescu caught Bryant's attention during Oregon's buildup to the Final Four last season. He had been one of her girlhood basketball idols.
"Kobe was close personal friends with Sabrina," Graves said. "They were communicating several times a week. … He has been to several of our games. He has spent time with our team, talking with each player we have. (His death) was a little more personal than for most teams."
Once she learned of Bryant's death Sunday morning, Ionescu was in shock. Family members visited her in the locker room before the game at Gill, and Graves and assistant coach Mark Campbell were at her side. "But mostly," Graves said, "we just tried to give her space."
When her teammates went upstairs for some shooting before warmups, Ionescu stayed in the locker room. The senior point guard was with the team for warmups, though, and then did what Sabrina does, collecting 19 points and eight assists and willing the Ducks (17-2 overall, 7-1 in Pac-12 play) to victory over the seventh-ranked Beavers (16-4, 4-4).
A reporter asked Graves if Ionescu had considered not playing. The coach smiled.
"You don't know Sabrina that well," Graves said. "She would never have done that. Maybe there's a moment where she might have thought about it … but she would have thought Kobe would have played."
The game goes on
The Ducks did not allow any players to speak to the media after the game; Ionescu made a statement with her play. Then there was what she had written with a felt pen commemorating the second of Bryant's two jersey numbers. On the back of her left shoe: "Forever 24." On the back of her right shoe: "24 (heart)."
Ionescu didn't do it alone against the Beavers. Junior forward Satou Sabally scored 13 of her 16 points in the first half and grabbed nine rebounds. Senior center Ruthy Hebard contributed 13 points and snared 14 rebounds, eight off the offensive glass.
"Satou was big, Ruthy played a heck of a game, and under the circumstances, Sabrina played like a champion," Graves said. "But they had help. This was a team win. You don't come to Gill and rely on just a couple of players and hope to win."
The Ducks weren't the only ones at Gill affected by Bryant's death. Moments before tipoff, players from both teams huddled near midcourt.
"We came together, and (OSU forward/center) Janessa (Thropay) started with a prayer for Kobe and his family," said Beavers senior forward Mikayla Pivec, who contributed 20 points and 12 rebounds in a losing effort. "It was about something bigger than basketball."
Bryant was killed flying to watch the Mamba Cup, a boys and girls basketball tournament he was sponsoring in Thousand Oaks, California. Daughter Gianni was a player.
"Kobe's support for women's basketball was huge," OSU junior guard Aleah Goodman said. "He had his own team. He was a huge voice, especially in women's basketball. He supported female athletes.
"Kobe was a huge influence to all of us. He has been my favorite player all growing up. Hearing the news, it was upsetting. It was really heartbreaking. We've all been touched by his life."
But there was a game to play, and for a while, it was a good one. Oregon jumped to an 8-0 lead in the first two minutes. Oregon State responded with 10 straight points to energize a packed house of 9,301, and the rivals went back and forth through the first half, with the Beavers taking a 37-34 advantage into intermission.
"The first half had a nice flow to it," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. "I think both teams would say it was fun."
Said Graves: "When we kept it close that first half, I thought the worst was behind us. Under the circumstances, I thought we'd be OK."
Oregon dominated the third quarter, outscoring Oregon State 18-8 to take a 52-45 lead into the final period. The Ducks used a 7-0 run to crank the difference to 59-45. The Beavers came back with five straight points to draw within 59-50 and never went away, but the Ducks were never seriously threatened from that point.
The Ducks used suffocating defense and rebound prowess in the second half. They had 12 of their 15 offensive boards after intermission, which helped offset poor shooting (.387 from the field, .263 from 3-point range).
'They made the plays in that third quarter, which was clearly the difference in the game — their athleticism on the boards," Rueck said. "Their defense was tough all day long. It was hard to get looks throughout the game. But their (second-half) offensive rebounding was the difference. We got stops. We made them miss, but they were getting two and three tries (per possession)."
Oregon won the board battle 40-31, the first time all season the Beavers had been outrebounded.
"Oregon State doesn't give up 15 offensive rebounds very often," Graves said. "It probably hasn't happened in ... years. We did a really good job there, and we switched the points in the paint. They were the first team to score more points in the paint all season (Friday). We flipped that today (34-22)."
Foul trouble hurt Oregon State. Freshman center Taylor Jones, who had 21 points in Friday's game, played only four first-half minutes after getting two early fouls, then picked up a third two minutes into the third quarter. She finished with eight points and two rebounds in 22 minutes. Pivec drew her fourth foul late in the third quarter but managed to stay in the game.
OSU's leading scorer, Destiny Slocum, finished with nine points and six assists, but that was with two baskets in the final 27 seconds. Before that, she was 1 for 11 from the field and 0 for 6 from behind the 3-point line.
Graves said the defense in the second half was "as good as we've played since I've been at Oregon."
"They're such a good offensive team," Graves said. "They execute as well as any team in the country. But we were dialed in, and we did a much better job on Taylor Jones."
Oregon remains in good shape to achieve one of its major goals — to play host to the NCAA Portland regional in March. The Ducks, however, play seven of their next nine games on the road, including a cross-country trek to face third-ranked Connecticut on Feb. 3.
"It's not ideal," Graves said of the tough stretch, which really began with Sunday's game at Gill. "But we got the first one, and that's the big one."
Rueck lamented the schedule his team has faced of late, including road games at nationally ranked Arizona State and Arizona, a home date with then-No. 3 Stanford and the Oregon series. The Beavers have lost four of their last five, with their first three-game skid since 2014.
"We're playing the hardest schedule in the history of the Pac-12," said Rueck, mentioning several short weeks with Sunday/Thursday games as well as the stiff opposition. "We're going through it. I'm proud of (the players) for the way they're handling things. This is a program that's not used to losing.
"This team is hungry to be great. We're still not executing at the point we need to beat a team like (Oregon), but I believe we will."
Rueck noted how "strange" the day was — beginning as an important game on the Beavers' schedule, but quickly becoming much more.
"It's a reminder about the fragility of life, and it's perspective," the OSU coach said. "It's one of those days you circle on the calendar every year. Then we had a heavy dose of reality right before it started."
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