SEATTLE -- The firsts are coming fast and furious now for Oregon.
A year after the talent-laden Ducks made their deepest run in the NCAA tournament (the Elite Eight), they just keep adding milestones.
Most wins in program history. Most wins in a Pac-12 season. The program's first regular-season Pac-12 title since 2000. And now, a first appearance in the Pac-12 tournament title game.
"That's what's next up," Ducks coach Kelly Graves said.
The latest check on Oregon's to-do-first list came at great expense to UCLA. Again. For the Ducks to notch another first, they had to break the Bruins' heart for the third time in two months.
UCLA guard Japreece Dean's 3-point attempt hit the rim and bounced away at the final horn, and Oregon -- and a strongly partisan northwest crowd -- burst into celebration as the Ducks pulled out a come-from-behind 65-62 win in a semifinal that was the most anticipated game of what has already been a competitive, drama-filled tournament.
Oregon's debut title game appearance will come against the program that has won more than any other team in Pac-12 history -- by a wide margin. On Sunday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET), the Ducks will take on 12-time tournament champ Stanford, which had little trouble dispatching Arizona State.
Oregon and Stanford met only once during the regular season, the Cardinal coming out with a 78-65 win in Eugene that Ducks star guard Sabrina Ionescu, who finished with a team-leading 17 points Saturday, called "a hard pill to swallow."
"I know we would definitely like another shot at them," Ionescu said.
Oregon -- which had reached the Pac-12 tournament semifinals only twice in the past 16 seasons -- went on a 10-0 run to close Saturday's game, rallying from a 62-55 deficit with 5:23 to go. UCLA went 0-for-7 from the field over the game's final stretch, down a final possession in which the Bruins, who had been the aggressor on both ends of the floor for most of the game, looked rattled under the burden of trying to get a win against Oregon that they clearly wanted so badly.
"For some reason, they bring out the best in us," Graves said after the game, beaming with pride about a young team that has proven not only its talent but its mettle in this program-defining season. "Just seems like every time we play, it's one of those great games."
On the other side, however, the devastation was palpable. UCLA, led by senior stars Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, was picked to win the Pac-12 but ended up finishing fourth, largely because of those two regular-season losses to Oregon. Canada and Billings hadn't been shy about their desire to close their Pac-12 careers with a title here in Seattle after the disappointment of the regular-season finish. The Ducks denied them that opportunity.
UCLA coach Cori Close's voice broke with emotion as she talked about how badly her team was "hurting" following another nail-biting loss.
"In the midst of the hurting, I'm really proud," Close said. "They fought their butts off. They were relentless. They were locked in. They fought like crazy and in the end, when life kicks you, you've got to let it kick you forward."
This matchup -- dare we now say rivalry -- veered quickly into must-watch territory as the season progressed. Oregon (29-4) and UCLA (24-7) did battle three times, twice on national television. To look only at the final results and see that Oregon won each time is to sell this series painfully short. All three games were decided by single digits, one -- just 12 days ago in Eugene -- in overtime. Both teams feature some of the top players in the country and some of the best offensive basketball.
"That's a Final Four-caliber team with Final Four-caliber athletes and coaching staff," Graves said of UCLA. "All of these games were a little bit epic. This is high-level stuff."
UCLA outrebounded Oregon 39-31, scored more points in the paint, scored more points off turnovers, more points on the fast break, more points off the bench. And didn't win.
"We didn't hit shots," Close said. "We needed to knock down a few more. We also said we couldn't give up layups or 3s down the stretch."
Oregon senior Lexi Bando hit a huge 3-pointer with 3:01 to go to pull Oregon to within 62-61. And then junior guard Maite Carzola scored on an open driving layup with a minute to go, giving the Ducks a 63-62 lead. And then Ionescu found Oti Gildon for an open layup under the basket to make it 65-62 with 30 seconds left, putting UCLA in the position of needing a 3-pointer to tie.
"That's a Final Four-caliber team with Final Four-caliber athletes and coaching staff. All of these games were a little bit epic. This is high-level stuff." Oregon coach Kelly Graves on UCLA
The Bruins' final possession was a scramble, Canada trying to force a pass inside before retreating, and without an open lane to drive, she dished to Dean for what was the final shot of the game.
"We were trying to get isolation for a quick 3 or drive to the basket," Canada said. "Obviously, I didn't make a good decision, trying to pass to Mo on the inside. We were trying to get a quick 2 or wide-open 3. I just didn't make a good decision down the stretch."
Close wouldn't let Canada take the blame.
"We had opportunities," Close said. "In the end, that last play wasn't as clean as we would have liked, but I thought it was the plays leading up to it where we needed to get more production."
Ionescu said that even after such a bruising, exhausting game, she's ready to go again right away in taking on the Cardinal.
"I think we are just going to come out and play as hard as we can and try to take a championship home," Ionescu said.
It was another moment without precedent in a season full of them for the Ducks, who with only one senior on the roster are poised for some very big things over the next few weeks, not to mention the next couple of years.
"I sure hope we have enough in the tank to get one more," Graves said.