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The future is bright: Pac-12 freshmen having strong first seasons

Sabrina Ionescu has had an NCAA-leading four triple-doubles this year as a freshman. Samuel Marshall/Eric Evans Photography.

It’s been a banner year for the Pac 12 freshman class, and a testament to the strength of the conference that so many newcomers on several teams are playing significant minutes and key roles for teams, many of whom have been ranked.

Seven different players have taken home Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors this season, and six of them have earned the distinction at least twice.

In a conference of star freshmen, here are the standouts:

Ruthy Hebard has stepped up big for Oregon in her debut season. Samuel Marshall/Eric Evans Photography.

Ruthy Hebard — Oregon (West Valley High School, Fairbanks, Alaska)

While her teammate may have gotten more buzz coming out of high school, Hebard was a heralded prospect in her own right, and she too has made a major impact in Eugene.

In fact, her performance may be just a bit more impressive.

Hebard is the lone freshman in the conference’s top-10 for scoring, averaging almost 15 points per game, and she leads the Pac-12 in shooting at 65 percent from the field. She’s also the top freshman rebounder, and fifth in the conference at nearly nine per game. She even checks on the steals leaderboard, with her 39 in 28 games putting her in the top-15.

“Her ability to finish is far beyond what I thought it would be as a freshman,” coach Kelly Graves said.

Graves sees similarities to Jillian Alleyne on the boards, and thinks her rebounding is an area where she’ll continue to get better. And while he’s seen her make strides in her positioning in the post, he thinks her biggest improvement this season has come defensively.

“I think defensively, she has just made huge strides, can guard any number of positions now, and that’s an area I think she’s improved probably more than any,” he said.

What’s particularly impressive, Graves said, is the improvement from one game to the next.

“The people who watch us regularly can’t believe that they’re seeing it right before their eyes,” he said. “She improves week to week and so, to me, that’s really impressive.”

Sabrina Ionescu has had an NCAA-leading four triple-doubles this year as a freshman. Samuel Marshall/Eric Evans Photography.
Sabrina Ionescu has had an NCAA-leading four triple-doubles this year as a freshman. Samuel Marshall/Eric Evans Photography.

Sabrina Ionescu — Oregon (Miramonte High School, Walnut Creek, Calif.)

Ionescu may have been the most-heralded recruit landed by a Pac-12 school in the class of 2016, ranked fourth in the nation by HoopGurlz coming out of high school. There’s no debate that she’s lived up to her billing thus far.

“She’s just motivated,” said Oregon head coach Kelly Graves. “She’s an alpha. She’s our leader. Kids really feed off her energy and work ethic.”

The 5-foot-10 guard has already set a program record with four triple-doubles, and became the first freshman this season to take home Pac-12 Player of the Week honors on Feb. 13.

She’s third on the Ducks in total minutes, but first in average at more than 30 per night over 24 starts (she missed four games with a hand injury). She’s also second on the team in scoring (14 points per game) and rebounding (7 per game.)

Her scoring presence has been buoyed by a strong showing from beyond the 3-point arc — shooting over 40 percent — and composure at the free-throw line (81 percent), while her presence on the boards puts her at 10th in the Pac-12.

She’s also taken care of the basketball, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.96, which puts her fourth in the conference.

Graves said Ionescu’s competitive spirit and will to win sets her apart. He said the guard is a great shooter with elite vision, especially in transition, and that both her ability to create and her usage of ball screens have gotten better as the season has gone on.

Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures.

Aarion McDonald — Washington (Brookside Christian High School, Fresno, Calif.) 

McDonald has been Washington’s most accurate shooter outside of the senior duo of Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor, at 47 percent from the field.

The lone freshman to start for the Huskies this season, the 5-foot-7 guard has also notched 32 steals in 23 games, again only behind Plum and Osahor.

Washington coach Mike Neighbors called McDonald a “defensive stopper,” and said she gives the team a secondary ball-handler.

“Aari is really fast with the ball, and makes good decisions for a freshman,” he said. “That was something we were missing last year. Kelsey had to have the ball in her hands 100 percent of the game sometimes. Aari now can create some open shots. I think Kelsey, as a result of Aari being on the floor creating open shots, Kelsey’s gotten more this year than she has in her last two years combined.”

Neighbors said McDonald’s biggest area of growth is with her shot selection, and a better understanding of the time and score.

“When you’re a fast as she is, you can create your shot whenever you want to a lot of times, and sometimes that’s not the best thing for our offense with weapons like Kelsey and Chantel and Natalie (Romeo) out there.”

The coach has also taken notice of how McDonald has gelled with her teammates.

“The most impressive thing is how she’s fit in with a group of kids that have been here for a long time,” he said. “She’s been a great teammate, a great follower. A lot of kids come in having been leaders in high school, and it’s hard to become a follower again, but she’s done a tremendous job of that, and been a great, great teammate.”

On a team with three key senior starters, that mindset has come in handy.

“She’s that wide-eyed freshman that just does whatever her teammates ask of her, and her coaches ask of her, and that’s a refreshing thing around a group like we have, with a bunch of seniors.”

Chanelle Molina — Washington State (Konawaena High School, Kealakekua, Hawai’i)

As conference play began, Molina turned heads, earning back-to-back conference Freshman of the Week honors, and one National Freshman of the Week award from the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. That stretch included a WSU freshman record 33 points in a win over UCLA on Jan. 6, a mark that also served as the most given up by the Bruins to an opponent in more than a decade.

She finished in double-digits for the final 12 games of her season, which was cut short by a torn ACL after an awkward landing in a game against Arizona State on Jan. 13.

At the time of her injury, Molina was averaging just under 13 points per game, and was sixth in the conference in shooting at 43 percent.

Minyon Moore dropped 33 points for USC in a game two weeks ago. Photo by TGTVSports1.

Minyon Moore — USC (Salesian High School, Rodeo, Calif.)

The 5-foot-8 guard has provided a spark off the bench for the Trojans, and is third on the team in minutes, playing almost 27 a night despite starting just four games.

Moore is third in the Pac-12 in steals, averaging two per game, and 10th in assists, with more than four per night. That puts her at No. 1 on the Trojans in both categories.

She’s also been one of the conference’s best free-throw shooters, shooting 78 percent from the charity stripe. Averaging 12 points per night, she’s second on the Trojans in scoring.

Her career-high 33 points in a win against Washington State on Feb. 16, and 20-point effort versus the Huskies two days later — combining to shoot 14-for-19 from the field over those two games — earned her not only conference Player of the Week honors, but a national nod from the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.

USC head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke said Moore’s work ethic and energy sets her apart.

“She revs up our engine every time she steps on the floor,” she said.

As the season has gone on, the coach said, Moore’s handle on the game has gotten better as well.

“Her game is starting to balance itself out,” she said. “She’s no longer one-dimensional. She’s starting to mature, and understand when to push the ball, and when to set up and run her team. She’s just continued to grow, and that’s the great thing about Minyon: She’s never satisfied.”

As far as comparisons go, Cooper-Dyke sees some parallels to late Houston Comets teammate Kim Perrot, calling them both fierce competitors.

“She’s tenacious on defense, she runs our team with a high motor and level of energy, and I just don’t see her stopping that,” Cooper-Dyke said of Moore. “I think she’s humble enough to always want to get better, and so I really think she’s a special kid.”

Reili Richardson — Arizona State (Brea Olinda High School, Brea, Calif.)

Richardson has taken care of business at the free-throw line, and is fourth in the Pac-12 at 84.4 percent. She’s also been an impeccable ball-handler, with the second-highest assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference at 2.1.

She also sits third on the Sun Devils in scoring, at just over eight points per night.

“She’s an aggressive scoring point guard,” said ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne. “You have to play her, because she can get to the rim, and she can shoot.”

Robbi Ryan, left, and Reili Richardson have filled crucial roles for the Sun Devils in the face of injuries. Photo by Patrick Breen/AZCentral Sports.

Her best stretch this season may have been at the start conference play, finishing in double figures for the first six games against Pac-12 foes.

What makes it all more impressive is that Richardson only turned 18 in October, making her a year younger than most other college freshman.

“Her poise is incredible for us as a freshman,” Thorne said.

While Turner Thorne sees some similarities to two-time All-Pac-10 First Teamer and current ASU associate head coach Amanda Levens, in terms of being a combo guard who can score, she’s not sure her program has had a truly comparable player to Richardson.

“We’ve never had this kind of lanky, 5-foot-10, really athletic, just in terms of physically what she brings,” she said.

Robbi Ryan — Arizona State (Sheridan High School, Sheridan, Wyo.)

Alongside Richardson, Ryan has appeared in every game for the Sun Devils, playing almost 25 minutes a night, and averaging seven points and three rebounds. That also puts her just behind her freshman teammate, at fourth on the team in scoring.

Turner Thorne has been impressed with Ryan’s intensity on the floor, and her ability to balance tasks on both sides of the ball. In particular, the season-ending injury to forward Jamie Ruden, and the nearly two-month absence of Kelsey Moos had her shouldering a heavier load.

“We run stuff to her on offense, we’re asking her to guard the best player on defense a lot of times,” she said. “It’s been a lot.”

The coach was reminded of the play of guard Danielle Orsillo, who led the Sun Devils in scoring her senior year (2010), and started the final 60-plus games of her collegiate career.

“I see a lot of similarities in their games,” she said.

Mikayla Pivec worked her way into the starting lineup early in the year for Oregon State. Photo by Karl Maasdam.

Mikayla Pivec — Oregon State (Lynnwood High School, Lynnwood, Wash.)

With the graduation of five players — including Jamie Weisner and Ruth Hamblin — the Beavers have turned to Pivec to pick up some of the slack, appearing in every game this season and starting the last 19.

Pivec proved her mettle immediately after her insertion into the lineup, going a combined 13-of-16 from the field with two consecutive 17-point performances in her first two starts, against Qunnipiac and Oklahoma State on back-to-back nights in December. She scored a career-high 19 points against Cal on Jan. 6. In between, she flirted with a double-double, with a season-high nine rebounds, and eight points against Washington State on Dec. 30.

She’s fourth on the team in scoring, third in assists, and fifth in rebounding. Her pair of Freshman of the Week honors matches Weisner and senior Sydney Wiese for most by an OSU player.

Ones to Watch: 

Mi’Cole Cayton (Cal) moved into the Golden Bears starting lineup in place of Penina Davidson on Feb. 3, and the 5-foot-9 guard has averaged nine points a game over that stretch, including an 18-point performance against UCLA. Mallory McGwire (Oregon) has flown under the radar as the third freshman in the Oregon starting lineup for most of conference play. She’s averaging 7.5 points and just over four rebounds a game. Head coach Kelly Graves said she’s shown “huge improvement” at the five spot. Megan Jacobs (Utah) has spent most of the season coming off the bench for the Utes, but turned heads with a 14-point showing in a start against Washington on Feb. 3. Kiana Moore (Utah) posted back-to-back 11-point outings in road games at Oregon and Colorado. Kayla Washington and Johanna Muzet (Washington State) have both appeared in every game for the Cougars, with Washington averaging six points per game, while Muzet had 11 points in her collegiate debut against Loyola Marymount.

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