Tampa bound: Oregon beats Mississippi State to advance to first ever Women’s Final Four

For the first time in program history, Oregon is headed to the Women’s Final Four.

Sabrina Ionescu scored 31 points, none bigger than a three-pointer that gave the Ducks a six-point lead with 1:13 to go, to lead the No. 2 seed Ducks to a 88-84 win over top-seeded Mississippi State in the Elite Eight before a raucous 11,534 at the Moda Center on Sunday.

“That was going in regardless,” Ionescu said of her last three-pointer, the sixth of seven straight made shots by the Ducks to close out the historic win. “No other way to say it. I wanted to finish this game off the right way. We’ve come so far. We played so hard that entire game. I knew it was my time to hit a big-time shot.

“Ruthy set a great screen, the spacing was great. I think that just shows we’ve been learning from the games we’ve been playing in. At that moment in time, I didn’t want it to go to overtime. I didn’t want to give them any more opportunities to score. I was also pretty tired. Let me hit this and walk off to the Final Four.”

Ionescu, who shot 12 of 20 from the field and made her last five shots while also dishing out eight assists and grabbing seven rebounds, was named Most Outstanding Player of the Portland Regional.

Satou Sabally had 22 points and seven rebounds, Ruthy Hebard scored 14 points and Maite Cazorla added 11 for Oregon (33-4), which advances to face the winner of Baylor and Iowa in the Final Four in Tampa, Fla. on Friday.

It’s the culmination of a remarkable five-year journey for the Ducks, who went from 10th place in the Pac-12 in 2013-14, the year prior to Kelly Graves taking over the program, to three straight Elite Eight appearances and now a Final Four.

“We started from scratch, so to speak,” Graves said. “There were great kids in the program, really good players. We weren’t quite the championship level yet. I give my staff a ton of credit. They worked their butts off. We had a plan. We stuck to it, recruited really well. … I think our student-athletes are the real ambassadors. When young women come on campus, they see what it’s like, we talk family. A lot of people profess, hey, their culture is about family. Well, they see it and they believe it because it’s there.

“Just took the right number of kids, a couple of good breaks along the way. But it’s been a really fun journey. Hopefully that’s not done. But we’ve taken that next step. Gosh, darn, we’ve been in this position a couple times, in a losing press conference. It’s really nice to make that next step. Who knows what happens from here.”

For Ionescu and Hebard, All-Americans who each attended last year’s Final Four to collect individual awards last season, earning their way to the sport’s biggest stage was the goal for the past year.

“I remember going and watching the Final Four (thinking) ‘I want our team to be here next year,’” Hebard said. “Throughout the season, we’ve been getting better and better, knocking on the door. This game, we have to make it this time. We were confident. I’m super excited.”

Oregon punched its ticket to the Final Four not only by outshooting Mississippi State, but by outrebounding the Bulldogs and making All-American Teaira McCowan (19 points, 15 rebounds) much less of a factor during the second half.

The Ducks were triple-teaming the Bulldogs big, with Sabally underneath trying to prevent passes in from the perimeter, Hebard on McCowan’s back and Cazorla to her side.

It allowed some of MSU’s other players more room to operate, as Anriel Howard had 18 points, Jordan Danberry had 15 points and 13 assists and Jordan Danberry and Andra Espinoza-Hunter each scored 12 for Mississippi State (33-3), but it was not enough.

“All I got to say is we’re not done yet,” Ionescu said. “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. I think that’s one of the reasons we didn’t necessarily set one goal before the season. I know we got a lot of critiques for that. Our goals are farther than one game, a Final Four, something that you can really pinpoint. I think our goals are things that we can control, and everything else will take care of itself.

“I’m excited to get to Tampa and continue playing with this team.”

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