There were 11,538 fans in attendance at Portland’s Moda Center for Sunday’s Elite Eight match-up between the Oregon Ducks and the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Much of the game had been accompanied by an ear-ringing din, but the crowd’s enthusiasm became practically floor-shaking as the game clock wound down and the Ducks refused to give up the lead.
Oregon was up three points when, with 1:14 left on the game clock and four seconds left for the shot, Sabrina Ionescu fired off a stepback three with Jordan Danberry’s hand in her face.
The outcome was more or less foretold, at least according to Ionescu herself. “Well, that was going in regardless,” she said later. But when the ball swished through the net, suddenly it sounded as though at least 11,000 of those 11,538 fans were screaming at the top of their lungs (as were, of course, all Ionescu’s teammates). Ionescu’s name started trending on Twitter, thanks in part to the A-listers watching — like Rebecca Lobo, who simply tweeted, “Sabrina.”
“I hope she’s talking about me,” Ionescu quipped when asked about the tweet in the postgame press conference,. “I’m happy that she’s out there voicing her opinion. Like coach said, this was one of the absolute best games we ever played in, that I think women’s basketball has been a part of.”
What might have sounded like hubris in any other situation seemed entirely appropriate under the circumstances: the game, which featured 15 lead changes and a point margin that never got bigger than seven, had been spectacular, and Ionescu was a big part of thanks to her 31-7-8 stat line, nearly her signature triple-double.
But the most important detail couldn’t be found in the box score: neither team had been to an Elite Eight before 2017, and both have been every year since. “We started from scratch, so to speak,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves told media after the game of how he’d turned the Ducks into contenders in just five seasons. “There were great kids in the program, really good players. But we weren’t quite the championship level yet.”
As they head to their first Final Four as one of the event’s buzziest teams, there’s no question Oregon women’s basketball can count themselves among the upstart programs proving that there’s more parity in the women’s game than ever before. But just as important is they’ve shown just how far the sport can reach when eye-catching star power on the court is paired with heavyweight cosigns and diehard fans off it. Oregon’s success is an anomaly not because they’re winning, but because they’re seizing an almost unprecedented amount of the national spotlight while doing so — a feat for the women’s game at any level.
Until very recently, women’s college basketball was best known for its most dominant programs: UConn and Tennessee. But even as they head to their 12th Final Four in a row (after “overcoming” their no. 2 seeding), UConn hasn’t competed in the NCAA tournament championship in three years. Instead, in 2017 South Carolina won its first title and in 2018 Notre Dame won its second, both over the beleaguered Bulldogs.
Though Oregon is the only team in the Final Four for the first time in 2019, the field appears more open than it’s been in years. The success of Baylor, Notre Dame, UConn and Oregon can’t easily be described as a fluke, or even as the product of a March-timed fairytale. More and more programs seem built to last, and designed around distinct identities unrelated to trying to be or beat UConn.
When Graves moved to Oregon from Gonzaga in 2014, for example, the Pac-12 was known for one thing when it came to women’s basketball. “When I was looking at it from a distance in the WCC, it was Stanford and everybody else,” he explained at the tournament, citing the consistent contenders led by longtime coach Tara VanDerveer. “The ‘everybody else’ were good, but they weren’t at that level. They’re still the standard by which we’re all judged.”
In the five years since he started coaching the Ducks, though, the conference has become among the most competitive in the country. Oregon State, Washington and Cal (in 2013) have also made Final Fours, and five Pac-12 programs competed in this year’s Sweet 16, matching the number that made it from the more-established ACC. It’s proof of what Pac-12 fans have been saying all season long: it’s full of teams that can go head to head with anyone, battle-tested by tough in-conference play.
While the Pac-12 is reaching a new peak as a group, there’s still something different about Oregon. No other women’s college basketball team is getting shoutouts from LeBron James on Twitter, or having Steph Curry share a photo op with their star on his Instagram. Sue Bird was on the sidelines when they played the University of Washington. Writer Shea Serrano, who has a massive Twitter following, adopted the team early in 2018 and visited a practice early in the season.
The recipe for their success is, of course, partly luck. Ionescu, with her overall NCAA triple-double record (currently she has 18) and celebrity cosigns, which include Dwyane Wade as well as Curry, is certainly a marquee attraction on her own. But the team’s loose, fluid and offense-oriented style has attracted more fans overall — and like other Oregon teams, they’re always outfitted to impress because of the school’s tight relationship with Nike.
“I know we do get a lot of attention, and it’s really fun. Like, ‘oh hey LeBron!’” star forward Ruthy Hebard said before the Ducks’ Elite Eight game. “I think it’s a good thing, and that our team earned it. It’s something special.”
That appeal, as well as the investment in the program by the school with Graves’ hiring and Nike, whose gear for the team inspired a petition to make the Ducks’ jerseys available for sale, has translated into diehard fans.
“It’s like traveling with rock stars, seriously,” said Graves at the tournament. “If you look at the nine Pac-12 teams that we played their average attendance was 2,700 on the year. When we played them, it was 5,200. It almost doubled. A: we’re getting a lot of Duck fans that travel. B: there are a lot of people interested in this group. There’s some star power there. We play a fun style. We’ve gotten a lot of the national attention and at this point, I think they’re kind of used to this.”
In what feels like record time, the program has brought both a distinct style of play and undeniable star power (on the court and in the crowd) to women’s college basketball. But they’re better understood as part of an explosion of talent at the college level — Mississippi State and South Carolina have both revitalized their women’s basketball programs with an enormous degree of success in recent years as well, gaining similarly devoted fanbases.
Oregon’s rise has been a little more glamorous than most, but the team, naturally, has their sights set much higher than an NBA player’s endorsement.
“We’re not going to be — of course, we’re going to be happy, but we’re not going to be pleased with how far we’ve gotten,” Ionescu said after her game-sealing shot. “All I’ve got to say is we’re not done yet.”