Oregon, Sabrina Ionescu open season of high expectations with epic upset of Team USA

1:44 AM ET

Mechelle VoepelespnW.com

CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

EUGENE, Ore. — A young girl came skipping out of Matthew Knight Arena clutching an Oregon women’s basketball team poster.

“Dad, take a picture!” she said, holding up her new prized possession. “I got all their autographs!”

It was that kind of joyous day for Oregon fans after the Ducks became only the second college squad to beat the U.S. women’s national team. More than two hours after their 93-86 victory Saturday, the Ducks were still meeting with fans. A crowd of 11,530 roared their approval throughout the exhibition game, and the fact that it doesn’t count on Oregon’s official win-loss record is irrelevant.

Because in every other way, this one counted big-time. Oregon couldn’t have picked a better way to launch what could be the most special season in program history. The Ducks were picked as the preseason No. 1 and, after making their first Final Four last season, they are favored to win the NCAA title this season. It’s a long road to get to the championship game in New Orleans five months from now. But what the Ducks showed Saturday is that they didn’t just pick up where they left off last season, they intend to be better.

Sabrina Ionescu, everyone’s preseason choice for national player of the year, had a bit of a slow start. But it was kind of like the initial smaller fireworks that give way to the massive ones in a Fourth of July show. She took over in the third quarter, where she scored 20 of her 30 points. She also finished with seven assists.

“I didn’t think I did enough in that first half offensively, I was a little bit tentative,” Ionescu said, but added that she started to feel things coming together at the end of the second quarter. “At halftime, everyone told me to keep shooting it and get in the paint. In that third quarter, I continued to attack the rim.”

Oregon senior Sabrina Ionescu scored 20 of her game-high 30 points in the third quarter. AP Photo/Chris Pietsch

Ionescu’s fellow senior Ruthy Hebard had 18 points and 11 rebounds, and junior Satou Sabally had 25 points and six boards. There are other college teams this season with one or two top-of-the-line elite players, but Oregon has three of them. Ducks coach Kelly Graves was impressed by his terrific trio.

“Satou was able to create her shot, and she was as aggressive as I’ve seen her since she’s been here,” he said. “I thought Ruthy carried us early in the game, and then Sabrina got her legs underneath her. Her attitude was, ‘I’m going to take this thing over.'”

In Team USA’s previous three games on this weeklong college tour — at Stanford, Oregon State and Texas A&M — there came a point where the pros took control and didn’t give it up.

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But that never happened against Oregon. The Ducks took a 68-67 lead at the end of three quarters and then expanded it. The U.S. women kept trying to restore order, but Oregon held firm. The Ducks shot 50% from the field for the game and outrebounded Team USA 34-29.

“I think every team has to, no matter who you are, go into a game confident,” Sabally said. “As the game proceeded, we kind of balled really well. The shots were falling, and then we were like, ‘We can really win this game. Let’s go!’ “

Four-time Olympian Sue Bird summed up the Ducks’ attitude the best.

“I think the difference with Oregon was, they never quit,” Bird said. “Some of the other teams, I think eventually we kind of wore them down a little bit. But not this team.”

As for Ionescu, Bird said, “There is going to be a lot of pressure on her to carry her team, and she seems fit for it. My favorite part of her game right now is her competitive nature. She’s very relentless, even when you think you have her stopped, she keeps coming at you.”

The future is in good hands

? Highlights from Eugene, Oregon, where @OregonWBB became the second college squad to ever defeat #USABWNT ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/FZHabHdbhY

— USA Basketball (@usabasketball) November 10, 2019

Tennessee is the only other college team to beat the U.S. national team, almost exactly 20 years ago. The Lady Vols won 65-64 on Nov. 7, 1999, behind 15 points each from future WNBA legend Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall. That Tennessee team, which had lost superstar Chamique Holdsclaw from the previous season, went on to make the 2000 NCAA championship game but lost to UConn.

So beating the national team doesn’t mean a title is a lock for Oregon. But this is a mature group that knows that already. Ionescu struck just the right tone between being proud of the historic victory but also remaining pragmatic.

“There were a lot of positives that we are going to take from this game,” Ionescu said. “But there are also a lot of negatives that we need to improve on and work on. Any team that’s going to watch that game is going to be able to try to pick us apart and do what they did.”

She might be overestimating how confident any other college team should feel about trying to do better than the pros did against Oregon. But it’s the right mindset for the Ducks to have, helping them keep their eye on the ultimate prize.

That said, this one was worth celebrating for the team and its fans. When asked what advice she’d give Ionescu, Bird referenced her own senior season in 2001-02, when her UConn Huskies carried the favorite tag all season and went undefeated.

“You only get to go to college once, so she should soak it all in,” Bird said. “She’s going to want to finish it right. Speaking as someone that won their senior year, there’s no better feeling than walking off the court knowing you’re a winner. You literally leave with no regrets.”

That’s the Ducks’ goal. Saturday, they started a journey that could have the happiest ending. They’ve already given it the happiest beginning.

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