Oregon Women’s Basketball: Gritty and Worthy of a Certain Ionescu

Drex Heikes Editorials

We interrupt all this talk about football to alert you to something you might be missing. Oregon women’s basketball is roaring back from a two year slumber. For the first time since Sabrina Ionescu’s 2019-2020 team, the Ducks are consistently playing hard and smart.

These young Ducks are 7-1, ranked 16th and beat Oregon State on Sunday to go 1-0 in conference. Their only loss was by six points to No. 7 North Carolina, whose veteran squad seized control in the second half, outlasting an Oregon team that starts two freshmen.

This year’s Ducks are a deep and welcome breath of fresh air. The Ionescu teams, with Ruthy Hebard, Satou Sabally and a talented supporting cast, spoiled Oregon fans forever. Those teams played with intensity and consistency, setting a standard by which Duck squads will be always be measured–including the disappointing teams of the last two seasons.

In fairness, losing three top 8 WNBA draft picks as Graves did in 2020 isn’t something any coach can fix overnight. Nonetheless, we expected more from an incoming team studded with a half-dozen five star players and ranked as the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.

But that team never meshed, never showed the teamwork and focus required for excellence. Worse, many of those Ducks played without passion. By tip off this season, all but one of those top talents, five-star Ta-Hina Pao Pao, had transferred or quit the team.

Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard executed the greatest “Pick-and-Roll” play ever in the history of Oregon Basketball.

What Went Wrong is Still a Mystery

Why they left was a mystery last spring and it remains a mystery. One unfortunate reality about the decline of newspapers is that thinned staffs don’t have the reporting muscle to dig into things like the possible implosion of a basketball program. An enterprising reporter–given time to do the job–would have reached out to the transferring players, coaches and athletic department staff for answers.

Had Graves nudged them to leave? Conversely, did they vamoose out of unhappiness with the coaches or direction of the program?

Either way, that once-promising team is gone. Enter the new one.

Graves again signed a top flight recruiting class (No. 2 in nation), but this one is doing vastly better. They have fit together since the opening game and they play with chemistry and grit.

So what’s different? Here’s one old guy’s take from the bleachers:

Oregon’s wild success with the Ionescu teams gave Graves recruiting pull he’d never had at Oregon or Gonzaga. He responded by gobbling up as many five-stars as he could, without much regard to how they fit Oregon’s needs or how he could keep that many stars happy.

It showed that first year, ‘20-21. Graves tinkered with his lineup non-stop, rotating players, trying to find a formula while struggling to distribute enough playing time across the roster. He expressed frustration at times at a lack of focus and team play.

Even with Nyara Sabally it did not quite jell…

Those Ducks limped to a 15-9 record, entered the NCAA tournament as a six seed and made the Sweet 16 before being thrashed by two-seed Louisville.

Last season was better and it was worse, largely because of wild inconsistency. The Ducks beat UConn but lost in Eugene to UC Davis–a 15-13 team–in a game the players didn’t seem to want to play. Graves did settle on a starting five before the conference opener but somehow it didn’t help. Seeded fifth in the NCAA tournament, they were immediately bounced by 12-seed Belmont.

The exodus of five stars followed.

A Top Recruiting Class Playing to Potential

Recruiting lesson learned. The four super-frosh this year seem chosen to fill specific needs. If Graves was a glutton two years ago, he’s evolved into a gourmet today. He has plugged players into slots he wooed them to fill and it paid off immediately as newcomers Grace VanSlooten and Chance Gray have big roles in the starting five.

VanSlooten, a 6-foot-3 forward, is already a fan favorite for her hustle, passing and mad back-to-basket moves. She has a wicked mid-range jump shot. She’s an old school gym rat who sets her jaw just like a certain New York Liberty all-star.

At 5-foot-9, Gray fits smartly as a third starting guard alongside ice-in-veins veterans Pao Pao and Endyia Rogers (current Pac 12 player of the week). Gray finds open teammates, nails 3s and drives fearlessly to the basket, starting with a lightning first step.

Grace VanSlooten is a new star at Oregon.

Freshman Jennah Isai is coming off the bench, for now, but good grief is she a joy when she hits the floor. She has a high motor that seems to turbo-boost teammates. Arizona’s top high school recruit is quick to the hole, and has back-to-basket moves rare for someone just 5-11. She must have played plenty against taller boys.

Kennedy Basham, a 6-7 forward, suffered an injury just minutes into her first game and isn’t expected to play again until next month. She was recruited to play tag-team with sophomore Phillipina Kyei, who at 6-8 is the tallest player in Oregon history. Together they were to give the Ducks a tall fir on the floor at all times.

Basham’s absence, coupled with a career-ending injury to 6-7 Sedona Prince, has forced Kyei to play far more minutes than Graves planned.

Kyei Growing Before Our Eyes

You might remember Kyei from last year. She was a diamond in the very rough, ham handed and stilted–as might be expected from someone who has played the sport just a few years.

Erase that memory. You won’t recognize her now.

Phillipina Kyei has improved to averaging a “double-double” already?

Enormous credit goes to the Oregon coaches and Kyei’s work ethic. She has learned how to block out on rebounds and scares anyone driving the key by swatting away shots. On offense, she’s gobbling offensive boards and scoring. Where last year she hurried shots that clanged off the rim, this season she takes her time, maybe does a little rock-step, and finds open shots.

As of today, Kyei is within a basket of averaging a double-double for the season. You read that right. She’s averaging 9.8 points and 10.1 rebounds, becoming the force Graves predicted she would be.

The entire team now plays with spunk. They show flashes of excellent defense. They pound the boards, with Pao Pao snaring rebounds like our former triple-double queen. Point is, if you were underwhelmed by the Ducks the last two years, you might give them another look. They’re coming on.

The Ducks play four games over the next week, starting tonight against Eastern Washington. Then Oregon’s has great progress check as 10th-ranked UCLA is in Eugene on Dec. 30. Share your thoughts about the rejuvenated Ducks at the forum-with-decorum!

Drex Heikes
Los Angeles, California
Top photo by Jerry Thompson

Bob Rodes, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is an IT analyst, software developer and amateur classical pianist in Manchester, Tennessee.

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