Shooting stars, offensive fireworks on tap when Irish, Ducks face off

Hebard, Ionescu reflect Sweet 16 victory (1:02)

Ruthy Hebard and Sabrina Ionescu combine for 39 points in the Ducks' 83-69 victory over Central Michigan. Oregon is heading to the Elite Eight for the second year in a row. (1:02)

SPOKANE, Wash. -- There will be plenty at stake for the Oregon Ducks when they face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Monday night in a battle of the top two seeds in the women's NCAA tournament's West region, with the winner advancing to the Final Four. But as a self-described fan of offensive basketball, Oregon coach Kelly Graves also appreciates what the matchup will offer from a viewing standpoint.

"These two great offenses, I think this is going to be one of those epic games," Graves said during Sunday's news conference. "I know a lot of people in women's college basketball are looking forward to it. Two teams with a lot of skill offensively, a lot of different weapons, star power. This should be a fun game."

According to HerHoopStats, the game pits two of the nation's top five offensive teams against each other. Oregon trails only undefeated UConn -- one of the two teams to beat Notre Dame this season -- at 118.0 points per 100 possessions, while the Irish aren't far behind in fifth, with a 114.6 offensive rating.

The star power Graves referenced should produce interesting individual matchups. Notre Dame guards Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale, who combined for 52 points and 14 assists in Saturday's high-scoring, 90-84 win over Texas A&M, will square off with Ducks star Sabrina Ionescu. Both teams' coaches cited stopping the opposing backcourt as key.

"Sabrina is just a phenomenal player, just phenomenal," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. "So difficult to guard. I've never seen a player, especially so young, already got the record for triple-doubles -- but the assists are what's so impressive to me. It's a challenge to figure out how to defend them. She can just pick you apart. I mean, she's just so smart and crafty with the ball. It's fun watching her when you're not on the other bench."

Graves had impressive words for Notre Dame's guards, as well.

"We can't let Mabrey go off and score three at a time," he said. "She's, what, 15-of-23 from the 3-point line in the tournament? When she hits a 3, it seems like it's 4. You know the next one now is going to go down easier.

"I think Arike is special. She truly is. We cannot allow her to make plays in transition. We just can't. We've got to sprint back. We've got to make sure we take care of the ball so that we can all get back and take away any driving lanes that Arike might have."

The ability of both teams to shoot the 3 (Oregon leads all Division I teams by making 40.6 percent of its 3-pointers; Notre Dame is 30th at 36.8 percent) creates plenty of space for their post players to operate inside. Irish forward Jessica Shepard has averaged 15.5 points on 56.8 percent shooting; Ducks counterpart Ruthy Hebard makes 66.0 percent of her shot attempts, including an NCAA-record 33 consecutive makes earlier this season.

With so much firepower on both sides, Monday's game might be decided by which team can actually stop the other.

"When you have games like that, whoever can put together a great quarter of defense, that might be the difference," Graves said. "Maybe that's a three- or four-minute stretch of good defense. That might be a three- or four-consecutive-stops kind of defense that I think will really impact the game."

That was the winning formula for Notre Dame on Saturday. The Irish gave up more than 130 points per 100 possessions to the Aggies in the first half, but held them to 16 points on 6-of-22 shooting in the third quarter. Notre Dame's seven-point edge in that period proved the difference in a six-point win. McGraw expects the regional final to play out in similar fashion.

"It would be great if we could have a strong defensive game throughout," she said, "but we're not a great defensive team. We need to really battle a little bit more. I think with the limited bench that we have, it makes it difficult for them. So I think defense is going to be a key to the game. Both teams have high-powered offense. It's going to be a matter of who can get some stops."

Neither Notre Dame nor Oregon has been nearly as strong defensively as on offense, ranking outside the NCAA's top 100 in defensive rating. Graves believes his team has been defending better for the past month, and the numbers back that up. Since the start of the Pac-12 tournament, the Ducks have allowed just one of their six opponents to score more points per possession than they typically average, according to HerHoopStats research. That came in the Pac-12 tournament final, when Stanford barely crept over its season-long mark in a game Oregon won by 20 points.

As McGraw noted, one reason the Irish have struggled defensively is their limited depth. After losing four players to ACL tears, Notre Dame has been limited to seven scholarship players since the start of conference play. The Irish have survived the injuries to get this far by relying on their healthy starters (including forward Kathryn Westbeld, who played 32 minutes on Saturday despite spraining an ankle last week, which has her in a walking boot off the court) and avoiding foul trouble. Only UConn has a lower foul rate this season, per HerHoopStats.com. (The Ducks rank 20th in this category, another reason Monday's game should be fun to watch.)

Still, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair mused on Saturday after his team's loss that depth could eventually be Notre Dame's undoing.

"I think Notre Dame could get hurt by some faster teams that have a longer bench than us, that could rotate more guards in," he said. "We just didn't have that, OK? But you've got teams like Louisville. That's the only thing I could see that could hurt Notre Dame."

That might be Oregon. Graves is comfortable going to his bench, which contributed 15 points in the Ducks' win over Central Michigan on Saturday.

"I always feel like we have an advantage when it comes to depth," he said. "We try to get all our players some rest. I love our bench. I trust our bench."

Along with the game being played nearly 2,000 miles west of South Bend, Indiana, the Ducks' superior depth helps make this perhaps the closest regional final on paper. (In fact, lower-seeded Oregon might even be the favorite; FiveThirtyEight's NCAA tournament projections give the Ducks a 56 percent chance to win.) That's all the more reason to be excited about Monday's game. Ionescu, for her part, can't wait.

"I think we're just as talented as they are," she said. "So I'm excited to see how we match up with their players. I'm excited to see how we grow. I wish the game was today."