Portland, Ore. – Sabrina Ionescu ignited in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s regional final to push No. 2 Oregon past first-seeded Mississippi State, 88-84, and send the Ducks to their first-ever Final Four.
The star guard scored 31 points, including 14 in the final frame on some tough shots, to end a two-year drought in the Elite 8. Satou Sabally had 22 points, Ruthy Hebard posted 14 and Maite Cazorla, 11.
“I thought they played really hard in the second half,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves said. “Wasn’t anything tactically that we did different. I think they played hard and tough. We always say the toughest team wins, and I thought we were the toughest team.”
The two teams traded shots for most of the game, and went into the fourth quarter knotted at 59 points. The Ducks maintained a small lead, twice inflating it to five points. But Ionescu’s long three-point shot with 1:13 to go put her team up, 81-75, and the Bulldogs could never close the gap.
“At that moment in time, I didn’t want it to go to overtime,” Ionescu said. “I didn’t want to give them anymore opportunities to score. I was also pretty tired. Let me hit this and walk off to the Final Four.”
Teaira McCowan had 19 points and 15 rebounds for Mississippi State, with most coming in the first half, as Oregon triple-teamed her and limited her effectiveness. Anriel Howard scored 18 points, Jazzmun Holmes 15 points and 13 assists, and Andra Espinoza-Hunter and Jordan Danberry each added 12 points.
Oregon out-rebounded their opponents, 32-31, and shot over 54 percent, and 50 percent from behind the arc. Both teams had less than 10 turnovers.
“(I’m) really proud of our poise and our confidence and how we played down the stretch,” Graves said. “You look at the numbers. Only eight turnovers against that kind of pressure. Our shooting percentage was high. I can’t believe we actually out-rebounded them. The Ducks really earned this.”
For the SEC champion Bulldogs, the result was a disappointment, as they had hoped to return to the National Championship game for the third straight year after falling short twice. But coach Vic Schaefer lauded his team’s fight against Oregon.
“I couldn’t be prouder of them for how hard they played, how hard they fought against a really good team,” he said. “I’ve watched a ton of film. I’ve not seen (the Ducks) make that many three’s in a while. They made shots today.”
“You’ve got to take your hat off to them. When you make shots in a big game like that, you’ve got to tip your hat to them.”
The Ducks won the regular-season Pac-12 title, but stuttered in their finish. They were upset by UCLA in the last game of the season and then lost to Stanford in the conference tournament title game. They returned and coaches gave them a week off from practice. Players used that time to regroup.
“We knew we were capable of making it to this point, so we came together and talked about the little things we needed to do,” forward Erin Boley said. “As a team, we unified ourselves. We have a lot of confidence in each other and we knew we all had one goal to work towards. We talked about how it didn’t matter what happened in the regular season.”
They adopted the slogan “rise above.” Each player picked a focus word before each game, which they would write on athletic tape around their wrists so it would be visible during games as a reminder.
“Knowing what we can be brought us together,” said Sabally, whose word for the regional final was “support.”
She was still wearing the tape long after the game was over.
“I know I get support from my teammates, but I also have to support them,” Sabally said.
Oregon will play in the Final Four in Tampa Bay, Florida next weekend. Connecticut earned a spot in the round of four earlier in the day. The last two spots will be decided tomorrow.
The two-day attendance total for the Portland regional was 22,575 – the highest all-session attendance for a West regional in NCAA history. The previous record was set in 1989.
The largest lead for either team was seven points in the game.
This was Schaefer’s seventh year as Mississippi State head coach. It is Graves’ fifth at Oregon.