Lexi Bando hadn’t planned on being an Oregon Duck.
The senior guard had her sights set on playing for coach Kelly Graves at Gonzaga University, where he was at the time, and had already signed her Letter of Intent there in 2013. But five months later Oregon hired Graves away, and he invited the Eugene native to follow him, which she did. The result was that she ended up staying in the city where she was raised.
“It kind of was like the best of both worlds: I got to live in my hometown and play for an amazing coach,” Bando said.
What Graves didn’t anticipate was that Bando would fill so many roles.
She has started every college game in which she has played, and she’s averaged 10-11 points every season, like clockwork. Bando has played with sets of greats: program record-holder Jillian Alleyne in her first two years, and burgeoning NCAA stars Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard as an upperclassman. Yet, no matter what the makeup of the team, Bando has produced and evolved.
Graves called the two-time Willamette High School state champion “our first really good recruit here.”
“She’s a stabilizing force for us, as well as a glue player,” he said. “There have been very few local stars that have stayed and attended Oregon. That says something about her, that she has handled that pressure very well, and has even thrived.”
“We needed her. She’s done nothing but play great basketball.”
Bando has presided through the rebirth of the Duck program, which made a deep WNIT run in her sophomore year and crashed the Elite 8 last March for the first time in school history, by upsetting Maryland in the Sweet 16. When she was a freshmen, they finished in the bottom half of the Pac-12. This week, Oregon is ranked No. 9.
Bando’s reliable outside shooting is a critical asset to the team, forcing opponent’s defense to guard her, and giving the Duck’s inside offense the space it needs to make plays and drives, even when she isn’t making all of her shots, according to Graves.
“She makes everybody else’s job easier because she’s such a great shooter,” he said.
Just eight games into the 2017-18 season, Bando has already made 20 three-point shots for Oregon. The team has more at stake this year, and Bando and guard Justine Hall – a Purdue transfer – are the only seniors, which has elevated Bando’s leadership role. Both help underclassmen manage schoolwork during the season and on the road, according to Ionescu.
Bando hopes to help guide the Ducks to the Tournament again, but said they are facing their schedule one game at a time.
“This year, we’re not really as much the underdogs, so we have to play even harder because every team is going to give you their best game,” she said.
With such a young squad, they still have some learning to do. Bando said they aim to become more like the University of Connecticut, who took them out of last year’s tourney in a 90-52 rout.
“They don’t make the little mistakes, but that comes with growth, and we’ll get there,” she said.
Bando has enjoyed playing in front of her family, who has their own fan section at home games at Matthew Knight Arena, Oregon’s home court. And as Graves’ first four-year player there, Bando has grown close to not only him, but his wife and family, as well.
With this familiarity, however, comes both a higher level of expectation and more pressure. Graves said that, although he cares for Bando, he can be hard on her for the sake of the team.
“I’m sure she probably gets mad at me a lot; but, you know what, once in a while you want to get on the team and you can’t get on everybody, so I get on her for the team,” he said with a laugh. “But, no, I really care for her a lot. I owe a lot to her.”
Graves said he expects Bando to continue to deliver for her teammates in high-pressure moments, stepping up to make key points and plays throughout the season.
“I anticipate she’ll be up to the challenge, because that’s the kind of player she is. She’s a winner,” he said.