The road to the Pac-12 women's basketball title does not include a stop in Salt Lake City for the defending champions.
Which makes No. 4 Oregon’s 87-65 victory over No. 14 Utah on Friday night in front of an engaged crowd of 7,773 at Matthew Knight Arena even more significant.
The balanced Ducks (20-1, 9-0), who had six players score in double figures, won't face the Utes (18-2, 7-2) again in the regular season due to the conference's unbalanced schedule.
Coach Kelly Graves said Oregon prepared as hard for Lynne Roberts' team as any it has faced this season.
"I told her after the game I'm really glad we only have to play them one time," Graves said. "That is a really good basketball team."
The Ducks outscored Utah 27-9 in the fourth quarter to remain alone atop the Pac-12 standings halfway through the regular season.
“I really liked the way we showed poise in that fourth quarter,” Graves said after his team's 13th consecutive win. “Our kids decided at both ends of the floor we were going to knock these guys out, starting with defense and continuing it at the offensive end. It was a real good win.”
Satou Sabally led Oregon with 20 points on 6-for-9 shooting. Utah’s Megan Huff finished with a carer-high 38 points and 11 rebounds to pace Utah.
After the Utes erased a 13-point deficit, Sabally scored 13 of her team’s next 14 points to get the Ducks back in control.
Huff completed a three-point play to get Utah within 60-59 to start the fourth quarter. Sabally answered with her own and-one to start the decisive run.
“I was kind of ready to get back in the game,” Sabally said of her clutch scoring spurt. “I had trouble with fouls and wasn’t as focused as I should have been. But I was ready.”
Sabrina Ionescu, who did not play up to her lofty standards, knocked down a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 71-59 and another deep ball with 3:00 left to make the score 80-64.
The NCAA triple-double queen finished with 11 points on 3-for-11 shooting with nine assists and five rebounds.
“Sabrina, let’s face it, she had a rough night for 3-pointers, but she played really well in the fourth,” Graves said. “That helped. She hit a couple, and it’s like the whole team took a deep breath.”
Graves was hit with a technical foul with 5:24 remaining in the third quarter. Huff made both free throws, and Kiana Moore knocked down a 3-pointer to get the Utes within 46-43.
Huff tied the score 48-48 with a 3-pointer, but Erin Boley and Maite Cazorla answered with timely makes behind the arc to pull the Ducks back ahead, 54-50.
“She’s an awesome player,” Sabally said of Huff. “She can shoot from the outside, she can post up, she gets rebounds. Just her aggressiveness makes her really hard to guard and she was making (everything).”
A basket by Dre’una Edwards gave Utah its first and only lead of the game, 56-54, with 58.7 seconds left in the third.
Sabally made a 3-pointer and competed an and-one to provide Oregon with a 60-56 advantage entering the fourth quarter.
“We tried to isolate her against Huff and she was able to get to the rim,” Graves said of Sabally’s dominant performance with the game on the line. “We got her the ball right there in the middle of the floor and she played like a pro during that stretch. Those were big-time moves and got them in a little foul trouble, too. We started to roll from there.”
Ruthy Hebard, who finished with 16 points on 8-for-10 shooting, made her first four shots to help stake Oregon to a 13-5 lead at the first media timeout. The Utes took another timeout after a 3-pointer and a second-chance bucket by Sabally extended the lead to 18-8.
Huff started to heat up in the second quarter and got her team within 24-17 after knocking down back-to-back 3-pointers.
Cazorla made a steal and saved the ball from going out of bounds with a slick around the back pass to Sabally. Boley cashed the turnover in with a 3-pointer in transition to give Oregon a 31-21 advantage.
Huff finished 5-for-5 behind the 3-point arc with 17 points in the first half, but the Ducks led 37-27 at the intermission.
Gildon led Oregon with 10 points at halftime, including a layup at the buzzer.
“Oti was huge,” Graves said. “She played a great first half. Defensively, she was among our better ones on Huff.”
Huff finished 13-for-25 from the field. Her teammates were a combined 10-for-30.
“Obviously we didn’t ever find anything that stopped Huff,” Graves said. “That kid can play. We knew that going in, but after watching her, she’s better than I thought she was.”
Cazorla had 16 points, seven assists and one turnover in 38 minutes. Boley added 14 points and seven rebounds.