Ruthy Hebard's return helps UO end two-game losing streak with 96-78 win over USC
The Ducks returned to their Final Four-caliber form on Sunday.
But last week’s two-game losing streak resulted in Oregon falling from No. 2 to No. 6 in the Associated Press poll released Monday.
Baylor remained in the No. 1 spot and received all 28 first-place votes with No. 2 UConn, No. 4 Louisville, No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 5 Mississippi State all jumping ahead of the Pac-12 leader.
The Ducks (25-3, 14-2) have a one-game lead in the standings over No. 7 Stanford (23-4, 13-3) and No. 9 Oregon State (23-5, 13-3) with two games remaining in the regular season.
Oregon, which plays at Arizona and No. 21 Arizona State this weekend, can earn a share of the Pac-12 title with a split and repeat as the conference’s outright champion with a sweep.
“I’ve admired this team,” coach Kelly Graves said after Oregon’s 96-78 win over USC on Sunday at Matthew Knight Arena. “I think they’ve handled adversity all year and they’ve handled it well, obviously, at 25-3.”
The Ducks had an argument to be considered for the No. 1 overall seed in the women’s NCAA Tournament after dismantling Stanford 88-48 on Feb. 10 for the program’s first win at Maples Pavilion since 1987.
Then star forward Ruthy Hebard suffered a knee injury and her teammates went a combined 11-for-48 (22.9 percent) on 3-pointers in the back-to-back losses to Oregon State and UCLA.
Hebard was cleared to play on Sunday morning and scored 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting with eight rebounds in 16 minutes against the Trojans.
“I thought it was a huge psychological boost, no doubt about it. She is such and important player, and I think the most dominating player in the conference,” Graves said. “It gave everybody a lift. I could tell we were a little down and maybe feeling sorry for ourselves just a little bit when she wasn’t in there.
“It goes to show you how important each and every player is, especially Ruthy, she’s a very important part of what we do.”
Sabrina Ionescu averaged 19.5 points in the two losses but was 16-for-40 from the field. The national player of the year candidate extended her NCAA record for career triple-doubles to 17 with 13 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds against USC.
Graves sensed that Ionescu, who slammed a water bottle on the floor as UCLA was erasing a 22-point deficit on Friday, was putting even more pressure on herself than normal without Hebard in the lineup.
“She’s tried to put a lot on her own shoulders, and I think she played a lot more free and was able to just go out and do a little bit of everything,” Graves said. “That’s when she’s at her best. It’s really funny when a triple-double doesn’t get the player of the game … but Sabrina was really focused and motivated.”
Erin Boley was given the in-house player of the game honor after scoring a career-high 32 points on 11-for-18 shooting, including 8-for-11 behind the arc.
Oregon finished 14-for-24 (58.3 percent) on 3-pointers and with 23 assists on 31 made field goals overall.
“When she’s having a night like that it changes who we are. We become very difficult to defend,” Graves said of Boley. “And she doesn’t need any time to get that thing off. It’s incredible how quick her release is.
“That’s just a dynamic we have been missing for three or four games. We have not shot the ball well, and I think we’ve had pretty good shots. This came at just the right time.”
In ESPN’s bracket projection on Monday, Baylor (Greensboro Regional), UConn (Albany), Louisville (Chicago) and Notre Dame (Portland) are the No. 1 seeds.
Oregon, which lost to the eventual national champion Irish in the Elite Eight last season in Spokane, is penciled in as the No. 2 seed in the Portland Regional.
With Hebard healthy enough to play and shots falling again, the Ducks believe last week’s stumble will actually help them down the road.
“Every team at some point is going to face some sort of adversity,” Boley said. “I think we ultimately will be a better, stronger, more connected team because of it. I think it’s going to help us be a little bit tougher down the stretch to end regular-season play.”