EUGENE, Ore. -- Oregon coach Kelly Graves said there were moments Monday when it was so loud the "sound actually had feel," and that indeed was the atmosphere at Matthew Knight Arena. The enthusiastic crowd of 7,098 had all kinds of things to cheer about -- even the play of the opponent.
Many Oregon fans applauded the UCLA players as they walked off the court. The Ducks' faithful could afford to be magnanimous because their team hung on for a thrilling 101-94 overtime victory, led by 25 points from Satou Sabally, 24 points from Maite Cazorla and 23 points and 12 assists from Sabrina Ionescu. But the gesture seemed genuine, a thank-you to the Bruins for their part in a terrific show.
"You saw two of the best teams in the country who went toe-to-toe," Graves said.
It was the last game of a Play4Kay tripleheader on a night when the final top 16 seeds reveal by the NCAA Division I women's basketball committee was announced. Both these teams are in that mix: UCLA as the No. 3 seed in the Kansas City Regional, and Oregon as the No. 2 in the Spokane Regional.
If it plays out that way, it could mean a return for Graves to the city where he built a top mid-major program at Gonzaga before taking over the Ducks in 2014. He could have left Gonzaga for other jobs over the years, but he waited for the one that felt right. And Oregon was it.
"This was an amazing crowd -- and arguably the biggest game in Oregon women's basketball history," said Graves, whose 25-4 Ducks now lead the Pac-12 standings at 14-2 and will finish the regular season this weekend at Arizona State and Arizona. "With a national TV audience, and we had a lot to play for in terms of potential NCAA seeding and a potential conference championship."
The crowd started the game in celebratory mood. Sophomore post player Ruthy Hebard, who had tied the NCAA record by making 30 consecutive shots from the field over her previous three games, made her first three shots Monday before missing one in the second quarter to set the NCAA record (for men and women) at 33 in a row.
Hebard, who finished 7-of-11 from the field for 14 points with 11 rebounds, chuckled afterward when it was pointed out she got an ovation after a missed shot as the crowd acknowledged her accomplishment.
"It was a great streak, and I'm really happy I could make that record," Hebard said. "I'm ready to start a new one now."
That's the kind of lighthearted confidence that Graves loves.
"These guys don't play like there's any pressure," he said. "They're so loose."
In fact, in the first quarter, the Ducks shot 75 percent from the field and took a 31-21 lead. They kept the heat on the Bruins in the second quarter and led 57-41 at the break.
The margin got as big as 19 points -- but it was far from over as UCLA climbed all the way back. This is a Bruins squad that, as Graves said, "Had a couple of opportunities to maybe quit, but that's not how they are. You're talking about warriors on that team.
"We're just fortunate we made a couple of stops in that overtime," Graves said, "and Sabrina kind of put us on her back."
Ah, yes, Ionescu closed the deal in the extra period, scoring seven of the Ducks' 11 points in overtime. She was unhappy with herself for missing a free throw with 26 seconds left in regulation that could have given Oregon a one-point lead, and the sophomore was determined to make up for it on the Ducks' senior night.
"I wasn't going to let our team down and our seniors down," Ionescu said. "It tested us; we had to come back and fight adversity and stay composed. I think we answered that test well. We've got to stay together and keep working hard and try to finish teams off ... in regulation."
Both these teams played extra periods Friday too; Oregon edged Southern California in double overtime, and UCLA fell in overtime at Oregon State.
Bruins coach Cori Close had mixed emotions Monday: proud of her team for rallying but disappointed in the defense, especially, in the first half. Close acknowledged that the Bruins simply have to defend better and more consistently if they are to make long runs in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments.
"I'm so bewildered at how we came out in the first [quarter]," Close said. "We've got to channel how we play at our best, learn from that, and try to put it into action the rest of the way."
The Bruins (21-6 overall, 12-4 Pac-12) will finish the regular season with home games Thursday and Saturday against Colorado and Utah. Seniors Jordin Canada (26 points, 13 assists) and Monique Billings (26 points, 10 rebounds) led the way in Monday's comeback -- and they will do the same in getting the Bruins past the disappointment of two close losses in the state of Oregon.
UCLA is tied in third place in the Pac-12 with Oregon State, behind Oregon and second-place Stanford (13-3). The Bruins split their two meetings this season with both the Beavers and the Cardinal. Oregon State finishes at Arizona and Arizona State, while Stanford is at Washington and Washington State.
"There's lots of basketball left to play," said Canada, who set the Pac-12 career assists record (she has 758) on Monday. "The way we played in the first half is not UCLA basketball. We came out in the second half with tons more energy; we fought back and were more aggressive. I love the fight of our team."
It was almost enough to topple the Ducks, and things looked especially tense for Oregon when Cazorla had to leave with 2:27 left in regulation with painful cramps in both her legs. But Ionescu helped the Ducks get to overtime, and Cazorla eventually returned and completed the overtime scoring with two free throws.
"It's not easy going against the quickness of their guards, and she gets guarded 94 feet every possession," Graves said of Cazorla. "It wears you out. She showed great resilience. She was able to come back in and help us finish the game."
Last year, the Ducks were sixth in the Pac-12 at 8-10, made it to the semifinals of the league tournament (losing to Stanford) and then advanced all the way to the NCAA Elite Eight. The 10th-seeded Ducks upset Temple, Duke and Maryland before falling to No. 1 seed UConn.
The Ducks' postseason success of last season has carried over into a more mature -- though still young -- team this season that now is in the driver's seat for the Pac-12 regular-season title.
"Nobody saw that run coming [last year], and I think it gave us a ton of confidence, especially these two," Graves said, gesturing to Ionescu and Hebard. "I've always felt that players improve the most between their freshman and sophomore years, and they certainly did that.
"And I'm glad we finished with Connecticut, because they're the standard by which every team's judged. So I thought it was a perfect storm last year, and it just helped propel us."