11,538 fans attended the Portland Fashion Center for Sunday's Elite Eight match between the Oregon Ducks and the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Much of the game had been accompanied by a thunderous noise, but the enthusiasm of the crowd became practically trembling when the game clock stopped and the Ducks refused to give up the advantage.
Oregon climbed three points when, with 1:14 left in the game clock and four seconds left, Sabrina Ionescu fired a three-pointer with Jordan Danberry's hand in the face.
The result was more or less predicted, at least according to Ionescu itself. "Well, that was no matter," he said later. But when the ball went through the net, it suddenly sounded as if at least 11,000 of those 11,538 fans were screaming with all the force of their lungs (as, of course, all of Ionescu's teammates). Ionescu's name began to show on Twitter, thanks in part to the list A observers, such as Rebecca Lobo, who simply tweeted"Sabrina."
"I hope you're talking about me," Ionescu joked when asked about the tweet at the post-game press conference. "I'm happy that she's expressing her opinion." As the coach said, this was one of the best absolute games we've played in, and I think women's basketball has been a part of it. "
What might have sounded arrogant in any other situation seemed entirely appropriate in these circumstances: the game, which included 15 advantage changes and a score margin that had never increased from seven, had been spectacular, and Ionescu was a big part of thanks to her. 31-7-8 stat line, almost its triple-double signature.
But the most important detail could not be found in the scorecard: none of the teams had been in an Elite Eight before 2017, and both have been every year since then. "We started from scratch, so to speak," Oregon coach Kelly Graves told the media after the game about how he had turned the Ducks into contenders in just five seasons. "There were great kids in the program, very good players, but we were not at the championship level yet."
While heading to their first Final Four as one of the most dynamic teams in the event, there is no doubt that Oregon women's basketball can be counted among the new programs that show that there is more equality in the women's game than ever. But the most important thing is that they have shown how far the sport can go when the attractive power of the stars on the court is combined with heavyweight cosigns and intransigent fans. Oregon's success is an anomaly not because they are winning, but because they are taking advantage of an almost unprecedented amount of national attention by doing so, a feat for women's play 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 consecutive Final Four (after "overcoming" their No. 2 seed), UConn has not competed in the NCAA tournament championship in three years. In contrast, in 2017, South Carolina won its first title and in 2018 Notre Dame won its second title, both over besieged Bulldogs.
Although Oregon is the only team in the Final Four for the first time in 2019, the field seems more open than it has been in years. The success of Baylor, Notre Dame, UConn and Oregon can not easily be described as a coincidence, or even as the product of a March fairy tale. More and more programs seem designed to last, and designed for different identities not related to trying to be or defeat 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 watching him from a distance in the WCC, it was Stanford and everyone else," he explained in the tournament, citing the consistent contenders led by coach Tara VanDerveer. "The" all others "were good, but they were not at that level, they are still the standard by which we are all judged."
However, in the five years since he began training the Ducks, the conference has become one of the most competitive in the country. Oregon State, Washington and Cal (in 2013) also achieved Final Fours, and five Pac-12 programs competed in this year's Sweet 16, equaling the number that the more established ACC did. It's proof of what Pac-12 fans have been saying throughout the season: it's full of teams that can come face to face with anyone, tested in the battle for a difficult game at the conference.
While Pac-12 is reaching a new peak as a group, there is still something different about Oregon. No other women's college basketball team is receiving messages from LeBron James Twitter, or that Steph Curry shares a photo with her star in its Instagram Sue Bird was on the sidelines when they played at the University of Washington. The writer Shea Serrano, who has a large following on Twitter, adopted the team early in 2018 and visited a practice early in the season.
The recipe for its success is, of course, partly lucky. Ionescu, with his NCAA triple-double global record (he currently has 18) and celebrity cosigns, which include Dwyane Wade As well as Curry, it is without a doubt a marquee attraction by itself. But the team's relaxed, fluid and offensive-oriented style has attracted more fans in general, and like other Oregon teams, they are always ready to impress because of the school's close relationship with Nike.
"I know we got a lot of attention, and it's really fun, like, 'Oh, hey, LeBron!', Said front-runner Ruthy Hebard before the Eights Elite Eight game." I think it's a good thing, and that our team is he won it. Is something special ".
That appeal, as well as the investment in the program by the school with the hiring of Graves and Nike, whose team for the team inspired a request for the ducks' shirts to be available for sale, has resulted in intransigent fanatics .
"It's like traveling with rock stars, seriously," Graves said at the tournament. "If you look at the nine Pac-12 teams we played in, their average attendance was 2,700 for the year. When we played them, they were 5,200. It almost doubled. A: We have a lot of Duck fans who travel. B: There are many people interested in this group. There is a bit of star power there. We play a fun style. We have received a lot of national attention and, at this point, I think they are used to this. "
In what seems to be a record time, the program has brought a different style of play and undeniable star power (on the court and in the crowd) to women's college basketball. But they are best understood as part of a burst of talent at the university level: the state of Mississippi and South Carolina have revitalized their women's basketball programs with an enormous degree of success also in recent years, gaining a base of followers equally devoted.
The rise of Oregon has been a little more glamorous than most, but the team naturally has its sights much higher than the backing of an NBA player.
"We're not going to do it, of course, we're going to be happy, but we're not going to be happy with how far we've come," Ionescu said after his chance to seal the game. "All I have to say is that we are not finished yet."