LAS VEGAS -- Oregon isn't the defending NCAA champion (that's Baylor) and isn't ranked No. 1 (that's South Carolina). Yet, it feels like the target has been on the Ducks' backs all season -- and they don't seem to mind.
After losing to Baylor in the 2019 national semifinals -- and not long after getting the news that guard Sabrina Ionescu would return for her senior year -- Oregon knew that this season, it would have one overriding goal: win an NCAA title. And though the Ducks stumbled twice in the regular season, they have looked pretty phenomenal the past two months on the road to New Orleans.
"I don't have any sense of doubt in my mind going into this [NCAA] tournament," Ionescu said after a door-slamming, 89-56 victory over Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament final Sunday. "Last year was hard; a lot of us were injured. The ones that weren't injured were on the verge of getting injured just by playing so many minutes. This year, I think we're right where we want to be, and that gives us a lot of confidence in each other.
"We've had some big games at home and on the road, and we've been able to win those games in tough circumstances, and I think that helps us."
Sunday, the top-seeded Ducks made it look easy. Even after a little bit of a slow start -- Oregon trailed 17-14 at the end of the first quarter -- they showed just how fast they could hit the accelerator and take off. They outscored the third-seeded Cardinal 29-9 in the second quarter, and that was that. The Ducks secured their second league tournament title and won their 19th game in a row. One minute, it was a close game -- the next, it was a big party for the many fans in green and yellow who filled the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
And what makes the Ducks even scarier is they didn't need much from one of their so-called "big three," because they have scoring depth all over the floor. Forward Satou Sabally was limited to seven points on 3-for-11 shooting, yet it didn't matter. Guard Minyon Moore, a graduate transfer from USC, had a season-high 21 points -- she was 4-of-5 from 3-point range after making just four treys total over the previous 15 games -- and seniors Ionescu (20 points, 12 assists, 8 rebounds) and Ruthy Hebard (24 points, 7 rebounds) were their usual big-time selves.
Hebard was named to the all-tournament team, and Ionescu was the tournament's most valuable player. Ionescu has now been named to the Pac-12 all-tournament team all four seasons of her career -- just the fifth player in league history to do so.
Moore brought a defensive intensity and toughness to the Ducks that they somewhat lacked last year, and that has spread to the entire team.
"We're still the most efficient offense in the country, and it is not even close," Oregon coach Kelly Graves said. "But now we can play both ends of the floor, which makes us really difficult to play, I think."
Stanford's Tara VanDerveer, whose team didn't score any transition points Sunday and shot 34.5% from the field, agreed about the Ducks' improved defense.
"They learned from their experience at the Final Four that offense wasn't going to be enough," said VanDerveer, whose Cardinal lost to Oregon for the third time this season. "They're big, they're strong, they rebound. You get one shot, and they're going the other way pretty fast.
"I don't think there is a game that our team is going to play that's any tougher. I give them a tremendous amount of credit, and we're not the only team they have beat this year. I think they beat a USA team early on pretty well, too."
Indeed, the Ducks got a lot of attention on Nov. 9 when they defeated the U.S. national team 93-86 in Eugene, Oregon. The Ducks lost to Louisville in a Thanksgiving weekend tournament in the Virgin Islands, and then their lone Pac-12 loss came Jan. 10 at Arizona State.
"I think it really did motivate us," Graves said of falling 72-66 to the Sun Devils. "I watched that game a lot after ... we went through the motions. And I think from then on, we determined that's not going to happen again."
Up by 38 with 3:37 left, Oregon coach Kelly Graves finally pulled all his starters. The game was long over by then, and Oregon forcefully had made its point: The Ducks are going full speed ahead to the NCAA tournament, where they are expected to be the No. 1 seed in the Portland Regional.
"We knew the entire nation was watching," Graves said. "This is the time of year that committee members are watching, as well. It's not why we try -- you know, we don't play harder because of that -- but I think it's important the way we played this game, the way it played out.
"We showed really everything that we can do tonight. This is a very effective team. We have 10 wins against teams that were in the top 16 in the last reveal. Ten. That's more than the other three projected No. 1s combined."
Earlier Sunday, two of the other teams projected to be NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds also looked good in winning their league tournaments. South Carolina took the SEC title over Mississippi State by 14 points, and Maryland claimed the Big Ten crown, beating Ohio State by 17. However, the other team expected to get a top seed, Baylor, was upset in its regular-season finale at Iowa State 57-56. While the Ducks, Gamecocks and Terrapins practice and rest this next week, the Lady Bears will be going for their ninth Big 12 tournament title in the past 10 years. But the debate among women's hoops fans will be this: Are the Ducks and Gamecocks destined to meet in New Orleans in April for the national championship? And if so, who's the favorite?
"We didn't play South Carolina, so I don't know," Graves said about matching up with the Gamecocks. "I know they're a really good team. We didn't play any SEC teams, either.
"I look at the Louisville loss against a very good team and a game where we just weren't quite ready for a new defense. That was on the islands. I think sometimes you can discount any game played on an island tournament over Thanksgiving, you know."
Of course, going by that logic, 32-1 South Carolina is undefeated, since the Gamecocks' lone loss was also in the Virgin Islands: on Thanksgiving Day to Indiana. The debate between the fans of Oregon and South Carolina now can percolate for the next few weeks, but it might not be settled until April.
Oregon made its case throughout a difficult Pac-12 season and with a dominant, nonconference victory at UConn on Feb. 3 (the Gamecocks beat the Huskies at home a week later). Oregon has continued to rise to every challenge since, often making good opponents look not especially challenging because the Ducks are so efficient and driven.
The Ducks were plucky underdogs back in 2017, when Ionescu and Hebard were freshmen, and they rode three consecutive upsets as a No. 10 seed to make the Elite Eight. In 2018, they won their first Pac-12 tournament title and went to the Elite Eight again but fell to eventual national champion Notre Dame.
Last year, Hebard dealt with an injury late in the season, and the Ducks fell to Stanford in the Pac-12 final. But Oregon was the "home" team for the Portland Regional as the No. 2 seed and beat top-seeded Mississippi State in the final to advance to the Final Four for the first time.
A 72-67 loss to Baylor in the national semifinals stung, but it was also the start of a new journey for a program that has helped change the landscape of the Pac-12. What was once "Stanford and everybody else" has transformed into what many feel is the most exciting league in the country.
And Oregon is the most exciting team of the league. Can the Ducks finish what they fell short on last season? At this point, it's going to take a lot to stop them.