Satou Sabally’s spectacular play during the opening weekend of the women’s NCAA Tournament gives second-seeded Oregon even more confidence as the Pac-12 champions prepare to step into the spotlight at the Portland Regional.
“I mean, if she plays like that, I think we’re unstoppable,” Sabrina Ionescu said before the Ducks boarded a bus Wednesday for the short road trip to Portland, where they will face No. 6 South Dakota State in the Sweet 16 on Friday at Moda Center.
Sabally, a sophomore who was on the all-Pac-12 team this season, averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds during the first two rounds of the tournament.
There is a reason why the German import feels more at home in Eugene, and at ease during March Madness, this year — her sister is along for the ride.
Oregon freshman Nyara Sabally is redshirting after suffering a knee injury in the FIBA Under-18 championship game in August.
The 6-foot-4 Sabally sisters will give coach Kelly Graves an imposing Berlin wall to throw at the Pac-12 when the back-to-back conference champions attempt a three-peat.
“Having my sister here is amazing. I can go to her and we can speak in German, which is crazy,” Satou Sabally said. “It’s just like being away from home with a piece of home.
“Family is everything to me, so having her is great.”
The Sabally sisters come from a large family of seven children who range in age from 5 to 28. Their mother, Heike, is German, and their father, Jerreh, is Gambian.
Satou Sabally left Berlin after her sophomore year of high school to play for Rotteck Gymnasium in Freiburg, which is about a seven-hour train ride from home.
After making recruiting visits to Oregon and Oregon State with her mom and younger brothers, Satou Sabally decided to fly with the Ducks.
That meant Nyara would also be packing her bags for Eugene.
“It was kind of like a package deal,” Satou Sabally said. “We knew we didn’t want to be in America as separated siblings, especially as foreign people. She trusted my decision. We didn’t really have a big basketball family, and I basically did the recruiting, like a lot of it myself. She trusted me because we didn’t know anything. …
“She knew I would choose a family atmosphere. This is what Oregon gave me, and I chose Oregon.”
Assistants Mark Campbell and Xavi Lopez have contacts in Europe who helped get the Sabally sisters on Oregon’s recruiting radar, but honing in on the targets proved to be a challenge.
“Like any international recruit, just getting ahold of Satou and tracking her down was hard,” Campbell said. “Then the language barrier with their parents, that made the whole process unique.”
But the skill set, talent and versatility both Satou and Nyara have was not lost in translation.
The elder Sabally played on a professional team, Eisvögel USC Freiburg, but did not accept a salary so she could remain eligible to play collegiately in the United States. She was also the most valuable player of the FIBA U20 European Div. B championship in the summer of 2017.
ESPN ranked Satou Sabally as the 36th overall recruit in the 2017 cycle after she played in the Jordan Brand Classic. Oregon’s staff had her graded out closer to the level of former South Salem standout Evina Westbrook, the No. 2 prospect in the class who went to Tennessee.
“It’s hard to predict how a teenager will adapt to living so far away from home and playing a more physical brand of basketball in America,” Campbell said. “But if Evina is considered arguably the best player in the country or one of them, well, it made you go, ‘Man, this kid might be the best player in the world.’”
Satou Sabally was voted the Pac-12 freshman of the year last season. The Ducks believe Nyara Sabally would have earned the same honor this season had she been healthy enough to play.
That’s something she’s been working hard on behind the scenes all season.
“It’s a long process,” Nyara Sabally said of rehabbing her knee back to full strength. “Obviously I want to play, but I feel like this redshirt year will help me in the future. Now I know how it is, like traveling and the schedule, so I’m better prepared for it.”
Before getting injured in the title game against Spain, Nyara Sabally averaged 9.7 points and 9.3 rebounds in the European championships.
"In the beginning I didn’t really like it, but I still went to basketball practice," Nyara Sabally said of picking in the sport as a kid. "And then I kind of fell in love with the game and kept playing basketball and kept improving my skills."
The Ducks project the younger Sabally’s game to look like a hybrid of her sister’s perimeter presence and junior forward Ruthy Hebard’s efficient post play.
“We have not had a player here like Nyara,” Campbell said. “The combination of Satou and Ruthy is fair because she’s a very powerful athlete, strong and physical like Ruthy, but she has some guard skills. Not as many as Satou, but she’s more refined than Ruthy. So she can bring the ball up in transition, she’s a very good passer, she is more comfortable making the 15-footers. It’s going to be really neat to see her out here. …
“She’s just going to be another selfless, talented basketball player that we get to add to the group that we’ll be returning.”
If Satou keeps playing the way she has been this postseason, Nyara could be joining a cast coming off the program’s first Final Four.
“We had a chance to go there last year,” said Satou Sabally, who was held to nine points on 3-for-11 shooting during Oregon’s loss to Notre Dame in the Spokane Regional final. “I feel I was not mature enough to really see what that means. But now I know, and I’m totally ready.”