EUGENE, Ore. — It was a few hours before one of Oregon’s biggest games of the season. Coach Kelly Graves, whose team tends to play calmly confident in a reflection of him, was multi-tasking. As he wrote the Ducks’ focus points and objectives for that night on a large dry erase board, he also talked about the spectacular sophomore Sabrina Ionescu.
“She’s so much fun to watch,” Graves said.
He’s experienced something like this before: A close-knit, successful team that had an especially skilled guard whom viewers’ eyes were inevitably drawn toward. That was at his previous program, Gonzaga, with Courtney Vandersloot, now one of the top playmakers in the WNBA.
In Graves’ fourth year at Oregon, in a season where so much has gone right, it’s happening again on an even bigger scale. The Ducks, who won both the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles, are the No. 2 seed in the Spokane Regional. They play against No. 15 seed Seattle in the first round Friday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) in Eugene, Oregon.
And if they get two victories at home in Matthew Knight Arena, the Ducks will take Graves back to Spokane, where he coached for 14 seasons. Hoping to lead the way there is Ionescu (pronounced YO-ness-cue), so riveting on court that she seems almost lit in neon even when she’s not wearing the highlighter-yellow version of Oregon’s uniform.
“Her overall skill is incredible in every phase of the game,” Graves said. “And I see what she’s done for our crowds. They’re coming out because we have a really good team and other good players. But it’s like at Gonzaga, when we started to grow, grow and grow because of Courtney. She was such an iconic player for our program, and people wanted to see her.
“Even that 18-45-year-old male demographic that typically doesn’t come to our games unless they have kids? They are coming out and saying, ‘Sabrina is incredible.’ And that’s pretty cool.”
“I mean, how’s she getting double-digit rebounds against some of the teams she does? But ultimately, I think her vision is the biggest thing. She is really great at setting somebody up.”
Kelly Graves on Sabrina Ionescu’s bigest skill
Indeed, Ionescu is the kind of player who can get even hyperactive critics of women’s hoops to hush up for a while and enjoy the show. Yet she isn’t showing off; she works her magic without unnecessary flourishes. And Ionescu’s talent and “I’m just playing ball here” personality have combined to make her “must-see” without it ever seeming like she’s saying, “Hey, look at me!”
“I know there are some people cheering me on who like to watch me because of how competitive I am and how I want to win,” Ionescu said. “I love inspiring youth, and all the kids who want pictures after the game. Just to be able to interact and talk to people; I don’t take that for granted.”
The 5-foot-11 Ionescu is the key ingredient that has made Oregon’s offense so potent. The Ducks are third in the nation, behind UConn and Baylor, in points per 100 possessions (117.20) and have the second-best true shooting percentage (59.7) behind UConn, according to herhoopstats.com. All five starters — Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard, Maite Cazorla, Satou Sabally and Lexi Bando — average in double-figures scoring.
After UCLA fell at Oregon 101-94 in overtime on Feb. 19, coach Cori Close was asked what made the Ducks so hard to defend, even for a team as skilled as the Bruins.
“The way they can spread your defense out,” Close said. “They can shoot the 3 so well. And Sabrina’s such a great passer. I thought Sabrina was the hardest for us to stop.”
Ionescu had 23 points, six rebounds and 12 assists that night, which is basically a standard game for her. She’s averaging 19.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 7.8 assists. And, of course, there’s the triple-double thing.
She has had five this season, giving her an NCAA-record nine for her career, with two seasons left. Two of those triple-doubles came in the first week of November against eventual NCAA tournament teams Drake (29 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists) and Texas A&M (16, 10, 11). Against Mississippi on Dec. 17, she had 21, 11, 14. Then it was 24, 14, 10 against Washington on Dec. 31. And against Utah on Jan 28, it was 19, 10 and 13.
“I think she’s equally good in all skills,” Graves said. “But her ability to rebound at her size against the kids she’s doing it against … I mean, how’s she getting double-digit rebounds against some of the teams she does? But ultimately, I think her vision is the biggest thing. She is really great at setting somebody up.”
Ionescu considers that largely a natural ability, but stresses she has also learned a lot at Oregon.
“I’ve kind of had a knack for the game ever since I was young,” she said. “But then I had to adjust coming into college, because I never ran a pick-and-roll. All through high school, we ran a dribble-drive.
“In college, I had to watch film; I didn’t even know how to use a screen effectively. My coaches sat me down and showed me, ‘This is what you need to do.’ “
It didn’t take long. Last season, Ionescu averaged 14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists for the Ducks, who made the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed.
“Last year, we got hot late,” Ionescu said. “We didn’t have a great Pac-12 season; we were still young and figuring things out. But all those experiences helped.
“Losing can help a lot, actually. After wins, you tend to overlook the things that you don’t do right. The Stanford game this year was an eye-opener for us.”
That 78-65 loss to the Cardinal at home in Eugene on Feb. 4 was one of the Ducks’ least efficient games, and Ionescu blames herself for that. She had 22 points, seven rebounds and seven assists … but also seven turnovers.
“We were up nine at halftime, and they overpowered us and wanted it more,” Ionescu said. “That Stanford loss hurt us. But it also helped us.”
The loss, the Ducks’ only defeat at home this season, illustrated some of the things Oregon needed to improve, individually and collectively.
“Sabrina knows she can get in trouble if she tries to do too much, and she does turn it over sometimes,” said Graves, whose team has won nine in a row since that Stanford loss. “We’re best with Maite Cazorla at the point. Sabrina will bring it up as a secondary ball handler, but Maite is better at getting us organized and getting us into our offense.
“But once Sabrina gets the ball, she’s just so creative and crafty, and great in transition. She’s not our true point guard; she’s more a playmaker.”
Ionescu hasn’t patterned her game after a particular player. If you mention the likes of Magic Johnson, a transformational playmaker in part because of his height, or triple-double machine Russell Westbrook, Ionescu doesn’t really see a lot of comparison. She’s not overly tall for a guard, nor is she a “freakishly great athlete,” as she refers to Westbrook.
She considers John Stockton one of her favorites. Graves sees some comparisons to former WNBA players Katie Smith of Ohio State and Nicole Powell of Stanford.
“I think a part of my game I want to work on is defense, for sure,” Ionescu said. “It’s something we have to do as a team, too, but it definitely starts individually. And then just being able to score the ball better, and create more on my own. And just be able to impact the game any way I can.”
Of course, she’s already doing that. Ionescu is coming off a 36-point, four-rebound, four-assist performance against Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament title game, avenging one of the Ducks’ losses. The others were at No. 1 seeds Mississippi State and Louisville, plus in-state rival Oregon State, a No. 6 seed.
The Ducks went from a 20-13 record entering last year’s tournament to a 30-4 mark this year heading into the Big Dance. The Pac-12 tournament title was the first in program history. The Ducks transformed from underdogs to favorites very quickly. And Ionescu now will be one of the focal points of the NCAA tournament.
“A lot of people ask me who my favorite player was. And I could never really find one,” Ionescu said. “So I never grew up watching that one person, where I tried to do everything like they did. I definitely took pieces from a bunch of different players and have used that to try to get better.”