Connecticut too much for upstart Ducks, make it tenth straight Final Four

Napheesa Collier prepares to score. Photo by Steve Slade.
Napheesa Collier prepares to score. Photo by Steve Slade.

Bridgeport, Conn. – Oregon was already the story of this NCAA tournament before their Monday match up with undefeated No. 1-seed Connecticut.

They had just an 8-9 record in the Pac-12 season, and lost their last three games. They looked like a WNIT team until they hit the conference tournament, where they pulled two upsets to advance to the semifinal. With those two wins and the RPI strength of the Pac-12, the Ducks sneaked into the NCAA Tournament field as a 10-seed.

Oregon has started three freshmen most of the year. Just making the Tournament would have been a good outcome, but the team and their outstanding coach, Kelly Graves, were not willing to settle. They were ready for the challenge.

“We’re not freshmen anymore, we’re 30, 35 games in,” center Ruthy Hebard said after Saturday’s upset victory over No. 3 Maryland. “So I think once we step on the court, we’re all just ballplayers. I doesn’t matter what grade you’re in, how young you are, so I think we just go on the court every day wanting to win, and we try our best.”

Ruthy Hebard puts up a shot. Photo by Eric Evans Photography/Oregon Athletics.
Ruthy Hebard puts up a shot. Photo by Eric Evans Photography/Oregon Athletics.

That victory followed a solid win over No. 2 Duke in the second round, after a 71-70 victory over Temple that Hebard preserved with a last-second block. When they clawed out their stunning win over an underseeded Terp team, they were the surprise entry to the Elite Eight. The Ducks therefore became the second-lowest seed in Tournament history to advance as far. The highest-seeded team was No. 11 Gonzaga in 2011, coached by Graves.

Oregon’s freshmen certainly did not look like freshmen either in their play, or in their press conferences. Both Saturday and Sunday at the Bridgeport regional, they looked relaxed and even excited about playing the Huskies.

“I don’t think we’re really nervous,” National Freshman of the Year Sabrina Ionescu said. “We have nothing to lose. It’s kind of fun to see. We all laugh and giggle and just are really excited to be here and enjoy this opportunity that we have.”

Despite the obvious relaxed approach of the team, the reality is that they were facing a UConn team that has beaten every opponent for the last 110 games. They are 35-0 this season and have averaged 98.7 points in their three NCAA tournament match ups. Over the last five games, the Huskies have shot 58.7 percent from the floor and 48.7 percent on threes. Five players have dished out more than 100 assists, and the team has had an assists on 77 percent of its baskets.

Oregon, like so many teams before, was not ready for the reality of dealing with UConn live. The Huskies dominated from the opening tap to a 38-point win, 90-52.

Saniya Chong drives to the basket. Photo by Steve Slade.
Saniya Chong drives to the basket. Photo by Steve Slade.

“First chance I’ve had to … see up close exactly what they’re about,” Graves said. “I think we had our team ready. Our team was confident going in, I just don’t think we weren’t able to handle that early, really the shock of how really good they are. They got us on our heals quickly.”

Auriemma, after watching the Ducks beat Maryland, had questioned whether his team could stop their efficient scoring.

“I don’t know if we can defend them Monday. . . We’ll come up with something, but this time of year, I want to try to get to 90 and take my chances,” he said. “I don’t want to try to win a game 65-60. That’s probably not going to work.”

He need not have worried. The Husky defense was stifling for all but short stretches of the game.

“I thought our defense was spectacular right form the opening possession and stayed that way pretty much throughout the game,” Auriemma said.

Uconn forced seven Oregon turnovers in the first 10 possessions. On offense, Husky senior guard Saniya Chong hit three-pointers on successive possessions, and Napheesa Collier hit a triple on the next one. The team scored on eight of the first 10 possessions, running out to a 19-4 lead. The Huskies forced eight Duck turnovers in the first period, shot 50 percent, and led 28-13 at the break.

Oregon came back strong for a while, working the ball inside and yes – using 20 seconds or more of the shot clock on each possession. They moved the ball better, and found players open for 10-foot jumpers. Then they cooled off a bit and the Ducks played them fairly even for almost five minutes. Then UConn’s defense stiffened and forced nine more Oregon turnovers in the second period. A 15-point Husky lead ballooned to 25 as the period wound down. The Huskies turned it over just twice in the half, and lead 49-24 at the intermission.

There was no quit in Oregon, no poor body language – just consistent effort. They had never encountered the kind of active defense that UConn brought to the game, however, and they scored just nine field goals in the half, compared to 20 for the Huskies. The Ducks height helped them to compete on the boards, where UConn’s advantage was just one after twenty minutes, 16-15.

Oregon successfully used the clock on many possessions, but the turnovers defeated the effort to take the air out of the ball. UConn had 38 shots in the half, connecting on twenty.

Sabrina Ionescu drives against Kia Nurse. Photo by Eric Evans Photography/Oregon Athletics.
Sabrina Ionescu drives against Kia Nurse. Photo by Eric Evans Photography/Oregon Athletics.

After the break, Oregon shifted from trying to find open threes, to passing the ball more crisply, taking the extra pass, and keeping the UConn defense in motion. This approach was far more effective than their first half offense. They successfully worked the ball to the short corner, and their bigs began to score. Ruthy Hebard made consecutive buckets inside, for the first time making the Husky defense look vulnerable. On the other end, however, the Ducks could not stop UConn, and trading baskets down 30 points was not a path to victory. Oregon shot 9-12 in the third period, but still fell four points further behind, as the Huskies scored four more points off three Oregon turnovers, and seven second-chance points from three offensive boards.

In the fourth, the UConn defense adjusted and closed down Oregon’s hot shooting. At the five-minute mark, the Ducks had managed just four points in the quarter. Napheesa Collier had seven more points, leaving the game at 5:42 with 28 points on 12-20 shooting, and 11 rebounds. With three minutes left, Auriemma pulled four of his starters, leaving just Chong on the floor. Graves followed suit, and the game was finished by the benches.

“They earned it,” Auriemma said. “Their reputation didn’t get it for them. . . . They played the best schedule, they beat the best teams, and they did it under the glare of the lights that they play under all the time. . . . The fact that those three were three were three of the top ten players in the country, they earned it, and they deserve it.”

UConn’s 21 assists gave them 842 for the season, breaking their own NCAA record. They will go to their tenth straight Final Four. And Even Auriemma, the architect of all these UConn records, has trouble absorbing the accomplishment.

“It’s hard to put it into any kind of context,” he said. “I don’t know what the previous record was, so I don’t have anything to compare it to. It’s such a hard feat to accomplish in so many ways. It only takes one loss. . . . So all those years, it only took one loss at the wrong time in March and you’re out. For us to have gone 10 months of March and not having lost a game with a different cast of characters, over all that time that’s pretty darn good.”

Napheesa Collier led UConn with 28 points, while Gabby Williams Williams added 25.

Chong has clearly saved her best for her last year. An infrequent contributor until now, she has excelled in this, her final NCAA tournament. With Katie Lou Samuelson missing from the outside, Chong hit 3-5 from beyond the arc in the first half, and played dynamic, smothering defense on the perimeter, stealing the ball twice at the top of the key, leading to four Husky points.

Chong was named to the All-Regional Team, an honor that would have been unimaginable back in November. In fact, she missed the announcement in the excitement of the post-game festivities.

The award “meant a lot,” she conceded, “but [when they announced it] I wasn’t paying attention because I was talking to someone else, and I all I heard was my name. And I was like ‘T [fellow senior Tierney Lawlor] what is that for?’ And when she told me, my reaction was just like ‘Wow!’ and I was so excited because I worked so hard throughout the year.”

Almost unnoticed in the excitement was that Chong now holds the NCAA record for most victories in a four year span with a single team, at 152, surpassing the record set last season by UConn’s “Big Three” of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck.

Oregon had an incredible run in the tournament, and despite the magnitude of the loss, played well against a UConn team that was not to be challenged. The Ducks shot a creditable 42.6 percent, but were killed by their 22 turnovers – leading to 32 Husky points.

Ionescu finished 5-10, 3-5 from long range for 15 points. Hebard added 12 on 6-13 shooting. She remained upbeat even in defeat, explaining how Oregon managed to play hard in a second half without any real chance of victory.

“We talked about it in the locker room,” Hebard said. “And we were in there trying to fix our mistakes, and then I said, ‘guys, we should live in this moment. It doesn’t come around often, and just enjoy it. Enjoy playing against the number one 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.”

Her coach was similarly upbeat.

“I just think this is all part of the process, part of the growing up,” Graves said. “I think a run like this will make it possible to motivate our team in the off-season.”

“Hey, we got a taste of it, see what it’s like, we want to go back. One of our goals will be to host the first and second round so we don’t have to make two trips cross country. We traveled over 6,000 miles.”

At the start of the season, nobody believed that UConn would be here, undefeated, with three All-Americans. But they are going to Dallas to face Mississippi State Friday.