EUGENE — Even as a true freshman, Sabrina Ionescu set the locker room tone for the Ducks.
With Oregon trailing top-ranked UConn by 25 points at halftime in the Bridgeport Regional final last March, the rising star put the inevitable end to an otherwise thrilling NCAA Tournament run in perspective for her young teammates.
“We talked about it in the locker room and we were in there trying to figure out our mistakes, and then I said, ‘Guys, we should just live in this moment,’” Ionescu said after Oregon’s 90-52 loss to the powerhouse Huskies. “It doesn’t come around often, and just enjoy it. Enjoy playing against the No. 1 team in the country.
“And we’re going to try to do what they do because I think we can become the next UConn here at Oregon.”
The Ducks would need to win 11 national championships to match Geno Auriemma’s tally at UConn.
But Oregon coach Kelly Graves has already built a program capable of reaching the Final Four for the first time.
The loss in the regional final fueled the tight-knit Ducks to improve during the offseason. Ionescu was named the Pac-12 player of the year after leading a talented nucleus to the program’s first conference title in 18 years and was voted most outstanding player at the conference tournament after scoring 36 points against Stanford in the championship game.
“We’ve been playing loose and it’s not going to change,” Graves said. “Practices are looser. Every time we’re together it’s fun. That’s part of this team’s DNA. I don’t think that will ever change.”
Oregon, the No. 2 seed in the Spokane Regional, will host No. 15 Seattle University in the first round of the NCAA women’s tournament on Friday at Matthew Knight Arena (approximately 4:30 p.m., ESPN2).
The Ducks (30-4) are 16-1 at home this season and two of their four losses during the historic 2017-18 campaign were true road games at No. 1 seeds Louisville and Mississippi State.
Oregon is 13-4 this season against teams in the 64-team NCAA bracket, including 8-2 against the other five Pac-12 teams in the field.
“We’ve answered all those challenges this year,” Graves said of navigating a schedule designed to prepare his team for another deep NCAA Tournament run. “We’ve played two No. 1 seeds, we’ve played Texas A&M, a host team, a couple times. The Pac-12 prepares us. We got everybody’s best in the Pac-12, too.
“As soon as we took the lead in the conference we were the team that everyone was gunning for, and this group answered the challenge and they did it again in the Pac-12 tournament. I think we’re going to be ready.”
The Ducks traveled approximately 11,652 miles during last year’s NCAA Tournament. Oregon, a No. 10 seed, upset No. 7 Temple and No. 2 Duke at Cameron Indoor Arena in Durham, N.C., before taking down No. 3 Maryland in Bridgeport, Conn.
Graves will use his own team’s journey to remind them that No. 7 Green Bay and No. 10 Minnesota, the two teams that meet in the other first-round game Friday in Eugene, are also capable of surviving and advancing to next weekend’s madness in Spokane.
“We have the luxury of knowing we better come ready to play because we were in that same situation last year,” Graves said. “As a 10 we had to beat a seven and then beat a two, so we’ve been through it. We know at this point any game you can get beat if you don’t bring it.
“I think we’re going to be ready and focused.”
Oregon’s players were given last week off to rest and study after winning the conference tournament with a 77-57 victory over Stanford in the March 4 title game in Seattle.
Graves and his staff soaked up the selection show with some of the team’s biggest fans Monday before diving into film study of Seattle and the two possible second-round opponents.
The Redhawks (18-14) earned an automatic bid by winning the WAC Tournament. This is the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Seattle’s leading scorer, Alexis Montgomery, is from Beaverton.
“My dad was hoping we would play Oregon because it’s only an hour and a half drive away, so we should have lots of support and lots of good energy coming from the Northwest,” Montgomery told the Seattle Times. “It’s super exciting. I can’t really describe it with words. We’re super grateful we just have the opportunity to play more than the regular season.”
The Ducks and the long shots from Seattle both have a chance to make a run at the Final Four without leaving the Pacific Northwest. The regional’s Sweet 16 is March 24 and the Elite Eight is March 26 at Spokane Arena.
“There’s a ton of advantages, but we’ve worked really hard to gain those advantages. That’s the way the system works,” Graves said of hosting the first two rounds and potentially returning to Spokane, where he was the longtime coach at Gonzaga. “We played 15 games against teams in the top 50. That’s as many as anybody, and we won 11 of those.
“This team has been tested, no doubt, against national level and national championship level teams.”
If the Ducks were to advance to the Final Four, which would require beating No. 3 Ohio State and No. 1 Notre Dame if the seeds hold, they would likely run into UConn again in the national semifinals on March 30 in Columbus, Ohio.