Inside Sabrina Ionescu's whirlwind, record-breaking weekend

STANFORD, Calif. -- Oregon women's basketball coach Kelly Graves and his players gathered around laptops at their shootaround late Monday morning.

Stanford's Maples Pavilion court went completely quiet, except for the sound of Sabrina Ionescu's voice transmitted online, saying goodbye to two beloved friends while her teammates, and the world, watched.

"I wanted to be just like him," Ionescu said at the memorial for NBA star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna at Staples Center in Los Angeles. "To love every part of the competition. To be the first to show up and the last to leave. To love the grind. To be your best when you don't feel your best."

But that night, facing a near full house at Stanford, Ionescu felt far from her best, physically and emotionally.

She had returned to Oregon for her senior season, forgoing a likely-No. 1 selection in the 2019 WNBA draft, after a heartbreaking loss in the national semifinals in the program's first Final Four. In November, the Ducks made headlines with an exhibition win over the U.S. national team, led by Ionescu's 30 points. Since then, Ionescu also has been chasing history, looking to become the first player in college basketball to amass 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists. Then, the unthinkable happened on Jan. 26, when Bryant, one of her idols and mentors, died in a helicopter crash that also killed his daughter and seven others while flying to a girls' basketball tournament.

The women's basketball world has gotten used to watching Ionescu accomplish many things over the past four seasons. But going into the Stanford game, Ionescu had made a long day's journey of bittersweet reflection into a pressure-packed night.

"Incredible. I thought she was so poised and so heartfelt today," Graves said of Ionescu's tribute to Kobe and Gianna, delivered to 19,000 in attendance and on the same stage with the likes of Diana Taurasi, Beyonce and Michael Jordan. "At her age, and relative, limited experience in things like that, I thought she nailed it. It was amazing. And she wrote that. That was from her. She's pretty special in more ways than just what you're seeing on the court."

What Ionescu has done on the court is pretty mind-boggling, too. She already had passed the points and assists milestones, needing nine rebounds Monday for 1,000. Had she done that anytime, it would have been unforgettable. That she did it on this, of all days, seemed surreal, even for her. From a memorial to a milestone, with just a few hours in between? What 22-year-old does that?

Sabrina Ionescu.

In front of a near-sellout crowd, with a landmark achievement dangling in front of her on a special date -- 2-24-20, the jersey numbers of Gianna, Kobe and Ionescu -- she summoned the Mamba inside her.

Ionescu didn't just become the first and only member of the 2K/1K/1K club. She did it on the way to her 26th triple-double -- the fourth back-to-back triple-double of her career -- while helping No. 3 Oregon beat No. 4 Stanford to secure at least a share of the Pac-12 title.

All with a heavy heart, and while so sick she couldn't keep food down before the game.

It capped a four-day stretch of nostalgia as she returned to the Bay Area, the place where Ionescu grew up loving basketball. Friday night at Cal, about 20 minutes from her hometown of Walnut Creek, California, Ionescu got her 25th triple-double in a 93-61 victory. Monday, she finished with 21 points, 12 assists and 12 rebounds in a 74-66 win. Both nights, there was a sea of green No. 20 Oregon jerseys in the stands, one of them worn by her father, Dan Ionescu.

"That's Sabrina for you; she's very focused, especially in the bigger moments," Dan said. "She handles them the best. How she does it, I don't know. She has feelings and emotions, but she's always known how to focus. It used to surprise me, but not anymore."

At Monday's memorial, Ionescu recalled first meeting Kobe and Gianna a year ago, when Oregon was in Los Angeles to take on USC. Graves had told the team there would be a surprise that day. Ionescu took that to mean "new shoes or swag or something." Instead, Kobe, Gianna and two of her Mamba Academy teammates sat courtside.

The friendship and mentorship started and grew from there. Ionescu worked out twice with Gianna last summer and watched her game film. During those workouts, she also helped Kobe coach the Mamba Academy team.

But, until the horrible news of the crash, not many knew the extent of Sabrina's connection with the Bryant family. Even Dan said he hadn't realized how often Sabrina and Kobe had texted as she picked his brain for basketball knowledge.

A representative for Bryant's wife, Vanessa, reached out to ask Ionescu to speak at the memorial. She joined the likes of Taurasi and UConn coach Geno Auriemma, and NBA legends Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.

Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry was one of many NBA players and coaches who attended the Bryant memorial. Then he made it to Monday's game at Stanford. He also had been at the Cal game Friday with his two young daughters, Ryan and Riley. Curry was as impressed as anyone with what Ionescu was juggling.

"I know how emotional it was for everybody in that arena [or] watching on TV," Curry told ESPN. "To be at her age, with all that she has going on ... it's unbelievable. She spoke so well and shared her story, how much the Bryant family means to her. And now she's out here representing them the best way she can -- by playing her heart out."

Ionescu was last season's Wade Trophy and Wooden national player of the year, is the favorite to sweep honors for 2019-20 and is the expected No. 1 pick in April's WNBA draft. Graves often tells of how Ionescu never wants to leave an arena -- at home in Eugene or on the road -- without signing autographs and posing for photos for every kid there. And even anticipating how taxing Monday might be, Graves had predicted, "It wouldn't surprise me if she has a game for the ages that night, because that's how she's wired."

Still, it was clear during the four-day California swing that everyone with Oregon also was looking to protect Ionescu. Graves had kept things light for the team on Saturday, as the Ducks visited San Francisco landmarks such as Fisherman's Wharf. And Ionescu didn't come to the news conferences after either game. Graves said he wanted her to spend time with family and friends Friday. On Monday, he said Ionescu had the flu and couldn't eat after returning from the memorial.

"Just the pressure that she's been under over the last season, it came to a culmination today," Graves said Monday. "At first you might think maybe there's some nerves. I just think exhaustion played a big part of it. Her immune system was probably down a little bit. But she battled through it."

Ionescu's teammates understood a lot was weighing on her mind. They had cried along with her during warm-ups at Oregon State the day of the helicopter crash, when Ionescu's parents had gone into the locker room before the game to comfort her. She still had 19 points and eight rebounds in a victory that day.

But Graves knew this past week would be especially difficult. Ionescu took a charter flight to Los Angeles on Sunday with Graves' wife, Mary. Ionescu spoke at the memorial Monday, then flew back later that day to play Stanford.

"Everybody has that point where they can't do it again," Graves said. "So I challenged the team, 'She's stepped up and carried us at moments, now it's our time to step up for her.'"

Fellow senior Ruthy Hebard said she and the rest of the Ducks were ready to be "someone she can lean on. But I know she's going to come in and play like she always plays."

Ionescu's legend looms large despite the fact that she is, as her father puts it, "your girl-next-door ... not a 7-footer, not someone tall with long arms. If you just saw Sabrina on the street, you wouldn't guess she was a basketball player."

Graves agrees about 5-foot-11 Ionescu, "People see a lot of themselves in her. She's not superhuman in terms of her physical strength, or length, or athletic ability. But she just plays hard and makes that extra effort."

Fans are also captivated because she seems to have an inexhaustible supply of basketball tricks up her sleeve.

The triple-double threat is Ionescu's signature characteristic. Graves lauds her ability to see two steps ahead on plays, a trait of many top guards. But how many of them work the boards like Ionescu? There are forwards who rack up points and rebounds, but they're not elite playmakers. With two regular-season games and the postseason left, Ionescu has more chances to add to her NCAA triple-double record, which might never be broken by any player on the men's or women's side.

"There's that anticipation every game: It just always seems like she keeps teasing you that something else great is coming," Graves said. "People can follow along with that, go on that ride with her."

Ionescu could have gone to the WNBA last year (she was draft-eligible then as a junior because she turned 22 in 2019) but chose to stay at Oregon. In a piece she wrote for The Players' Tribune on Monday, Ionescu said when she first saw Bryant a few days after making that decision, she knew he approved.

"He gave me this smile and nod," Ionescu wrote. "That was him letting me know he thought I'd made the right call."

The Ducks were preseason favorites to win the NCAA title, a weight that Ionescu acknowledged initially scared her. Which is why she embraced it; Ionescu says she can't grow without being challenged. Talking with Bryant helped her better understand that about herself.

"His vision for others is always bigger than that for themselves," she said in her tribute. "His vision for me was way bigger than my own."

She had to dig especially deep Monday. Ionescu told ESPN after the victory, "You kind of try and hide some of those emotions until you get there, in Staples Center, and they all come back to you. Being able to speak was such an honor for me. And being able to hear everyone speak ... I tried to do everything I could to try and hold it together tonight. And my team helped me a lot doing that."

Graves said Ionescu didn't come to the postgame news conference to talk about her groundbreaking feat because she was ill and just wiped out. But Kobe and Gianna would have understood this, too.

On a day in which Ionescu had said so much from the heart, her performance had the last word.