Former Gonzaga Prep standout Oti Gildon reaches final stop in college basketball journey – a Final Four trip
The journey is complete.
Oti Gildon and Kelly Graves are in the Final Four.
They arrived in Tampa, Florida, on Tuesday, but the odyssey began five years ago in Spokane.
In the spring of 2014, Gildon was a junior at Gonzaga Prep, celebrating a State 4A title and a bright future – she hoped with Graves, who was running a successful program at Gonzaga.
Graves had built the Zags from scratch, but he felt the itch to do it again. A few weeks later, Graves took over the struggling program at Oregon.
Folks in Spokane were shocked. A few months later, so was Graves.
“It’s in worse shape than I thought,” Graves said during a forgettable first season that saw the Ducks go 13-17.
But he didn’t forget about Gildon, a versatile 6-foot-1 forward who went on to win another state championship playing alongside Laura Stockton.
As in, future Zag Laura Stockton.
Would Gildon join her?
The final decision came on National Signing Day at G-Prep on January 15, 2015. Gildon and Stockton were on opposite sides of a table, with two other student-athletes between them.
Stockton was clad in the white and blue of Gonzaga.
Gildon wore a green sweatshirt. It was green, and as bright as the promise that Graves has shared with every Duck recruit.
“#4N4,” Graves and his staff called it, a vow to reach the Final Four within four years. It took a year longer than that, but the Ducks will be taking the floor Friday against Baylor in the national semifinals.
Gildon is a major reason why.
“She’s a culture creator, is what I call her,” Graves told The Spokesman-Review on signing day. “She will help us create the kind of culture we need.
“She’s a winner.”
And while she’s never been the Ducks’ leading scorer and didn’t start in a game until her junior year, she became Oregon’s most consistent player off the bench.
With Gildon on board, the Ducks’ fortunes turned on a dime. Her first collegiate points came on a 3-pointer that helped Oregon win its season opener at No. 22 North Carolina.
Gildon went on to average 2 points and almost 10 minutes per game as the Ducks went 24-11 and reached the semifinals of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
A year later, freshman sensation Sabrina Ionescu arrived in Eugene. After a mediocre regular season, she led the Ducks through a remarkable postseason that didn’t end until an Elite Eight loss to UConn.
Oregon got there again last year, going 33-5 and winning the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles before reaching the regionals in Gildon’s hometown.
Delayed by plane troubles in Eugene, the Ducks arrived in Spokane just in time for practice at the Arena.
It was a light workout, but evidently the players had worked up an appetite by the time they showed up for dinner at the home of Gildon’s mother, TaLesha Roberson.
“Ribs, pork and beans, chicken and hamburgers. Polish sausages, baked beans, potato salad, peach cobbler, cheesecake,” Roberson said.
“And they took plenty to their hotel.”
It was hard that day to tell who was more grateful. The Oregon players and coaches went away with full stomachs, but Roberson was filled with pride.
By then, her daughter’s destiny was on its way to fulfillment, and it had nothing to do with basketball.
In four months, Gildon will become the first in her family to graduate from a four-year university.
“I’m proud. When I think of her, I just get chills,” Roberson said recently. “I want to cry because she’s my inspiration.
“Her nickname in the family is ‘Hope,’ and when you look at her, that’s exactly what you see: hope.”
At the Arena the next day, Gildon was greeted by familiar voices in the crowd.
“It was really fun,” Gildon said. “It’s always nice to hear familiar voices in the crowd yelling and cheering you on.
“I knew I needed to step up for the team.”
And she did. In a Sweet 16 game against Central Michigan, it was a pair of free throws from Gildon that ended the last Chippewa rally and sent the Ducks to the Elite Eight.
Along the way, Gildon averaged 4.1 points and 3.4 rebounds in 13.9 minutes per game – modest stats, but deceiving, according to her coach.
“She’s a great teammate,” Graves said. “You know, here’s a young lady that has kinda had a lesser role, so to speak, in terms of production and stuff, but she’s just as important to our team as anybody, and everybody on our team would say the same.”
The season also ended in Spokane, with an Elite Eight loss to eventual national champion Notre Dame.
Gildon wasn’t done. That summer, she and Oregon teammates Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Erin Boley won the USA Basketball Women’s 3x3 National Championship title.
They went on to the worlds in Manila, knocking off defending champ Russia and finishing fifth.
Gildon followed with a solid senior season at Oregon, averaging 4.6 points and 3.5 boards while logging 16.3 minutes a game.
A top-five team most of the year, the Ducks earned a No. 2 seed into the Portland Regional. Backed by a supportive crowd on Sunday, they rallied past top seed Mississippi State to reach the Final Four.
Two days later, Gildon was so excited on her way to catch the bus to the airport that she forgot her headphones.
“My alarm went off,” Gildon said, “and I was like, ‘Yep, let’s go.’ ”
Gildon circled back, grabbed the headphones and finished the journey begun so long ago.
A journey with no regrets.
“This guy,” Gildon said, patting Graves on the arm earlier this week. “I’ve known him since I moved to Spokane. He came to all the games, and I went to all the Gonzaga camps.
“I trusted him, and I wanted to be a part of something big, and we made it.”