Reaching the Final Four is the last frontier for the Oregon women’s basketball program.
The third-ranked Ducks, coming off back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in the NCAA Tournament, begin the journey with a season-opening road game at Alaska-Fairbanks on Tuesday night at the Patty Center (8 p.m., no television).
Coach Kelly Graves scheduled the game against the Division II Nanooks for conquering hero Ruthy Hebard, who is from Fairbanks, Alaska.
“Ruthy’s really important to our program,” Graves said. “So I thought it was important to get her back home.”
Hebard was an honorable mention All-American and won the Katrina McLain Award last season as the nation’s best power forward.
Oregon will be relying even more on the 6-foot-4 junior, who averaged 17.6 points and 9.0 rebounds last season.
True freshman Nyara Sabally (6-foot-4) will redshirt due to a knee injury, and sophomore Lydia Giomi (6-6) is still on the mend from the foot injury she suffered at last year’s Pac-12 Tournament.
Forwards Mallory McGwire (Boise State), Anneli Maley (TCU) and Sierra Campisano (Cal Poly) transferred out of the program.
“We’re going to miss the players that we lost, but we’re really excited to start,” Hebard said after a recent practice. “We know we have a small group. It’s going to make us closer and it’s going to get us in great shape. By the first game we should be able to run a 40-minute game.”
Erin Boley, a 6-2 sophomore who practiced with the team last season following her transfer from Notre Dame, and Pac-12 freshman of the year Satou Sabally (6-4) are versatile players who can help Hebard inside and also knock down three-pointers.
Senior forward Oti Gildon will continue her role as a spark off the bench.
“Erin at (small forward) has changed what we do,” Graves said of Boley. “We’re picking and popping a lot more with her. That’s different than maybe what we’ve done in the past with our bigger posts just rolling. That’s taken a little getting used to.
“We’ve added a bunch of different looks and sets, and they’ve picked it up like its midseason, which is really great. I think we have a highly cerebral team, which is good for a coach.”
Oregon, the heavy favorite to repeat as Pac-12 champion, has an embarrassment of riches in the backcourt.
Sabrina Ionescu is a preseason first-team All-American and the reigning Pac-12 player of the year. The junior already holds the NCAA career triple-double record and averaged 19.7 points, 7.8 assists and 6.7 rebounds in 2017-18.
Senior point guard Maite Cazorla, an all-Pac-12 selection last year with Ioenscu and Hebard, is on pace to set Oregon’s career assists record this season.
“She runs the pick-and-roll better than anyone in college basketball, so it’s been fun to be able to watch her and learn from her,” Ioenscu said of Cazorla. “She just helps our team so much. She’s just so composed and always making the right play and such a team player.”
True freshman Taylor Chavez will help replace four-year starter Lexi Bando, who was on hand to get her Pac-12 championship ring with her former teammates during last Saturday’s football game at Autzen Stadium.
“We’re going to miss Lexi. She was an amazing player and had a heck of a career here for four years,” Graves said of the three-point sharpshooter, who averaged 10.2 points as a senior. “But I think it’s even going to be a bigger part of our game this year, the three-pointer. We’re shooting more threes (in scrimmages) and shooting a high percentage.”
Oregon’s first road trip of the season is all about shining the hometown spotlight on Hebard, whose high school coach, Jessie Craig, is now an assistant at Alaska-Fairbanks.
“I have so many people texting me about it. I can’t wait to show everyone in Alaska,” Hebert said. “It’s going to be crazy. Everyone is going to be there.”
The Ducks also beat the Nanooks in back-to-back games in Fairbanks in 1977 (82-62 and 84-76) and lead the all-time series 3-0.