Oregon looks to hold off Stanford for regular-season title
As of late Monday night, Oregon coach Kelly Graves wasn’t even sure who the No. 8 Ducks were playing the final week of the regular season.
“It’s somewhere down in the desert — and we’ve got more work to do,” he said.
The importance of the Pac-12′s final week was certainly not lost on Graves. The Ducks (25-4, 14-2) are in first place in the conference, vying for their first Pac-12 title since the 1999-2000 season.
But they’re among four teams are still in contention for the title heading into the last weekend. For the record, Oregon plays at Arizona State on Friday and Arizona on Sunday. A regular season championship — and a good showing in the upcoming Pac-12 tournament — means a great chance that Matthew Knight Arena will host early-round NCAA tournament games.
As always at this point in the season, Stanford is up there, too, just one game back of Oregon. The Cardinal (19-9, 13-3) have won the conference’s season title or a share of it for seven of the past 10 seasons.
The No. 16 Cardinal visits Washington on Friday and Washington State on Sunday.
Tenth-ranked UCLA is coming off a disheartening loss to the Ducks on Monday. The Bruins (21-6, 12-4) erased a 19-point deficit to push Oregon into overtime but ultimately fell 101-94 in a nationally televised game of Top 10 teams.
It was the second-straight overtime loss for UCLA, the team also fell 67-64 last Friday to Oregon State.
“I actually stole a coach (Kate) Yow quote after the Oregon State game: You can swish your feet in the pity pond, but there’s no swimming laps. You’ve got to get out and move forward and make the choice to grow for your team.” Bruins coach Cori Close said about moving forward.
Still in the race for a season title, UCLA hosts Colorado on Thursday night before wrapping up the season at home against Utah on Saturday.
The No. 12 Beavers (21-6, 12-4) remain in contention, too, just two games back of the Ducks with two games to go. They play Arizona on Friday and Arizona State on Sunday.
Oregon State has won at least a share of the season title for the past three years. The Beavers are coming off home victories against UCLA and USC.
“It’s not getting easier from this point on,” senior Marie Gulich said following Sunday’s 69-63 victory over the Trojans. “We will face teams that will pressure us. I think this was huge for us, just knowing and having confidence in ourselves that we can face anything.”
The Pac-12 tournament opens on March 1 at Key Arena in Seattle. Stanford is the defending tournament champion.
At least for now, the Ducks are in control, led by sophomore Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard, and junior Maite Cazorla.
Oregon, which last season went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005 and advanced the Elite Eight, has won four straight after a loss at home to then-No. 24 Stanford on Feb. 4.
The Ducks finished 8-10 in conference last year before becoming the tournament’s Cinderella team.
“These guys don’t play like there’s really any pressure. I love it. They’re so loose,” Graves said. “You guys go to shootaround, you go to practices, they’re pretty loose. They’re having fun. Right now we’re 25-4 and competing against the best teams in the country.”
Earlier this season Ionescu grabbed headlines with her eighth triple-double, an ongoing NCAA career record.
The Ducks’ more recent history includes a notable milestone for Hebard, who set a new NCAA record for consecutive field goals made for men and women.
Hebard came into game against UCLA with 30 straight makes, the women’s record. She made her first three shots to break the men’s record of 30 set by Yale’s Brandon Sherrod in 2016. Hebard finally missed a layup in the second quarter.
Her streak spanned 11 quarters and two overtime periods. When it ended, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. She made her next attempt.
“It was a great streak,” she said. “It’s always fun to make your shots, so I’m really happy to make that record — and I’m ready to start a new one now.”