At least two records were set Tuesday night at Matthew Knight Arena.
Sabrina Ionescu set the Oregon record for consecutive free throws made in a single game, going 17-for-17. And Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer set the unofficial record for most repetitions of the word “toughness” in a single postgame interview.
“I thought we got out-toughed all night long,” he said. “Give credit to Oregon. That’s something we take great pride in, is winning the toughness battle.
“It’s one thing to talk the talk. Oregon walked the walk tonight. They out-toughed us.”
Schaefer went on to repeat some variation of that theme another half-dozen times, lamenting how the Ducks beat Mississippi State at its own game. It showed up in Ionescu’s repeated trips to the free-throw line, in Oregon’s rebounding edge and ultimately in the final score: No. 7 Oregon 82, No. 4 Mississippi State 74.
“I was disappointed that we really got the toughness piece handed to us,” Schaefer said.
That’s a significant statement considering the opponent, the stage and the style of play Oregon faced Tuesday night. The Bulldogs have appeared in the past two national championship games and had won 46 nonconference games in a row. They also have a 6-foot-7 center, Teaira McCowan, who dominated the Ducks when they met last season.
This is the kind of team that could stand between the Ducks and a trip to the Final Four in March. For one night in December, Oregon measured up.
“We questioned our toughness for time to time,” coach Kelly Graves said. “They passed tonight. This was a tough, gutty win.”
We know Oregon has experience and skill. We know the Ducks have a five-star floor general in Ionescu surrounded by weapons at every position. We know they can navigate the Pac-12 grind, because they did it last year en route to the conference title.
The thing we didn’t know was whether the Ducks could match up with a team like Mississippi State, a big, athletic, physical team from the SEC that plays pressure defense and likes to pound the ball in the post.
Well, now we know.
“We’re a different style than probably anybody in the Pac-12,” Schaefer said. “They stepped out and played us tonight and had a lot of success.
“They’ll feel good going into the NCAA Tournament if they run into another team like us that’s athletic, that’s got some size, that’s long and quick and might press them.”
At its best, this Oregon basketball team has qualities reminiscent of Chip Kelly’s Oregon football teams. The Ducks are fun, they’re up-tempo and they can score points in bunches.
Like Chip’s Oregon teams, you’d be selling them short to say they’re not tough or physical. But still, there’s always the question: What happens when they run into an Auburn, an LSU or, in this case, a Mississippi State?
The Ducks played Mississippi State last year in Starkville and lost 90-79. They didn’t have an answer for McCowan, who scored 35 points and grabbed 19 rebounds.
Tuesday, the Ducks held McCowan to five points and 11 rebounds in 34 minutes. With the game still in doubt, Schaefer kept her on the bench for the final 6:12, which is a testament to Ruthy Hebard’s interior defense and the way Oregon attacked McCowan in the pick-and-roll.
“(Hebard) was a warrior tonight,” Graves said. “I’m really proud of her.”
The Ducks have a long way to go before they’ll run into another team like Mississippi State from outside the Pac-12. If they play the Bulldogs or someone similar in March, without the benefit of 8,900 partisan fans in the stands, there’s no guarantee the game will go the same way.
For now, the Ducks can feel good knowing they were up to the challenge. The Pac-12 schedule will test them in different ways, with Stanford, Oregon State and others trying to knock them off the throne. But if the Ducks can beat Mississippi State in this fashion, they can clear any hurdle standing between them and the Final Four.
“Like we say at the beginning of every game, the toughest team wins,” Graves said. “I thought tonight we were the tougher team.”
I know at least one person who would agree.