That plan was to build up a national power and go to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
That plan was realized today in the Moda Center in front of 11,538 when the 2-seeded Ducks defeated the 1-seed Mississippi State 88-84. Oregon now has to make other plans, such as travel plans to Tampa Bay.
The Ducks will play either Iowa or Baylor next Friday, April 5.
“I think what’s hopefully not lost in this, this was a great showcase for women’s basketball today. I thought the crowd was amazing. The people here at Portland did such an awesome job with the entire tournament,” Graves said. “That was as well-played a basketball game as I think you’re going to find anywhere. I thought that is about as good as women’s basketball can get.
“Really proud, though, of our poise and our confidence and how we played down the stretch. 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.
Proud of all three of these All-Americans who played like All-Americans today. Just happy for our fans and our university.”
It’s fitting that it was Cazorla who hit the dagger three-pointer with 34 seconds remaining to give the Ducks an 84-77 lead. Mississippi State tried to make a furious rally at the end, but Oregon was able to make four free throws in the last 20 seconds to keep it a two-possession game and to hold the Bulldogs at bay.
Cazorla made the dagger three, but it was Sabrina Ionescu’s 31 points, eight assists and seven rebounds to carried the Ducks throughout much of this game. Fortunately for Oregon, Ionescu’s teammates were there to help out.
Satou Sabally might have had her best complete game of her career with 22 points and seven rebounds. She was 7-of-15 from the field, including three huge treys. Many of her shots came against Mississippi State’s 6-9 center Teaira McCowan. Sabally used all of the tools in her arsenal against McCowan. Her pump fakes, jukes and just flat out natural athletic ability frustrated the big center.
Oregon matched up McCowan with Ruthy Hebard for a lot of the game as well. Hebard, who finished with 14 points and five rebounds, also used some moves she’s not accustomed to using such as a pump fake and dribble drive. But it’s not every day she has to face up against a player such as McCowan. Hebard was also able to draw a couple of offensive fouls of McCowan to frustrate her further.
Even though the Ducks played McCowan the very best they possible could, she still managed 19 points and 15 rebounds. A lot of that came in the first half. Graves made some adjustments at halftime, including triple-teaming McCowan in the key a lot of the time. If Oregon was going to lose, it wasn’t because McCowan beat them. The Ducks were determined to make another Bulldog do the job.
And for a while, McCowan’s teammates almost came to the rescue.
Anriel Howard scored 18 points, including four from long distance. Jazmunn Holmes added 15 with Andra Espinoza-Hunter and Jordan Danberry each pouring in 12. Holmes also dished out 13 assists.
This was a heavyweight fight back and forth for the entire 40 minutes. These two teams are familiar with each other, playing one last season and this season in Eugene with the teams winning on their home floor.
Fortunately for Oregon, the rubber match and most important game in its history was in front of a very partisan crowd in Portland.
It was 59-59 at the end of the third quarter. Oregon was 10 minutes away from the Final Four and the Ducks played the last quarter as if their collective lives depended on it.
Oregon came out in the fourth scoring the first five points on Ionescu’s lay-in and Erin Boley’s three from the right corner. Mississippi State, as it did all day long, came right back. Howard hit a jumper and after turnover, Howard made two free throws.
But Sabally hit another big three to give the Ducks a four-point lead at 67-63 with 6:24 left. Oregon didn’t have a chance to relax at all as Bre’amber Scott hit a three of her own.
Ionescu answered with another three, her fourth of the night, to give the Ducks a 70-66 lead with 5:33 left. Holmes converted an old fashioned three-point play and yet again, the Bulldogs were within one at the five minute mark.
Oregon made a mini 4-0 run on Sabally’s lay-in and Ionescu’s running lay-in to make it 74-69 4:07 left. A 4-0 run might seem like a huge deal, but in a slugfest like this, a five-point lead might seem like 15 under normal circumstances.
Mississippi State made it a one-possession game a 74-71, but then Cazorla made one of her patented finger rolls to make it a five-point Duck lead
The two teams traded baskets and when Sabally was called for an offensive foul with 2:08 left, the Bulldogs had a chance to pull within one or even tie the game.
Mississippi State tried to cram the ball in the middle to McCowan, but Hebard was in good position and blocked the big center, sending the Duck fans into a frenzy.
Hebard wasn’t done.
She blocked another would-be shot from Scott and managed to corral the rebound with 1:40 left. Ionescu sensed the Bulldogs were on the ropes and drained a step-back three with 1:15 left to give the Ducks an 81-75 lead.
To Mississippi State’s credit, they didn’t fold as Scott laid the ball in to make it a four-point game. At that point, the Bulldogs decided to play defense and not foul hoping to get a defensive stop.
Instead, Cazorla calmly hit the biggest shot of her career with a three from the left wing for the 84-77 lead. It was the nail in the Bulldogs coffin and booked Oregon’s trip to Tampa.
~ Don Smalley