PORTLAND — The Elite Eight is great.
But these NCAA Tournament-tested Ducks, who are playing in a regional final for the third consecutive season, want to take the program to the Final Four for the first time.
Second-seeded Oregon faces No. 1 Mississippi State in the Portland Regional final Sunday at Moda Center (11 a.m., ESPN).
The fourth-ranked Bulldogs (33-2), who have lost in the national championship game the past two seasons, are also chasing hoops dreams beyond this clash of women’s basketball titans.
“I think that's been their saying right from the start: Unfinished business,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves said of the SEC champions. “We know we're going to get a very experienced team, but a determined team. They've had their eye to this. They've been here before. They've won twice in this game. We have yet to do that.
“We want to break through that ceiling. We don't want to be just an Elite Eight program, we want to be a Final Four and perhaps a national championship program.”
The seventh-ranked Ducks (32-4) lost to UConn in the Bridgeport Regional final two years ago when Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard were true freshmen happy to be on the ride.
Last year in the Spokane Regional final, Oregon let a six-point halftime lead slip away against eventual national champion Notre Dame.
Graves’ team believes those experiences, and a significant home-crowd advantage, will help them cut down the nets this time.
The Oregon-Mississippi State survivor will advance to the Final Four next week in Tampa, Fla.
“Ultimately, we are trying to win this game and we are trying to get further than we have these last couple years, at least with this core group,” Ionescu said. “I think that's what's going to separate us as a more mature and veteran group. We want to get better, we want to do more than we have in the past.
“Coming into this year, we had Tampa written all over our locker room, that was our ultimate goal because that is ultimately what is going to set us apart.”
This will be the fourth meeting between the two teams over the last three seasons. Mississippi State beat the Ducks 75-63 in Honolulu on Nov. 25, 2016, and 90-79 in Starkville, Miss., on Dec. 13, 2017.
Oregon won this season’s marquee nonconference matchup 82-74 on Dec. 18 in Eugene.
“We talk to our kids about being tough, being gritty and playing for something we’ve never done,” Oregon assistant Jodie Berry said. “We have an opportunity to do something that we’ve never done. It’s going to take 40 minutes of a knock-down, drag-out battle. So our kids have got to get ready to go.”
Teaira McCowan, the Bulldogs’ imposing 6-foot-7 center, will be the focal point of Oregon’s game plan again after she struggled by her standards at Matthew Knight Arena.
Senior forward Anriel Howard scored 30 points against the Ducks and all five starters scored in double figures during Mississippi State’s 76-53 win over No. 5 Arizona State on Friday in the Sweet 16.
“I won't have it no other way really,” Mississippi State guard Jordan Danberry said of facing the Ducks again. “I want to play here in front of their fan base again and come out with a win.”
Graves even tried to play the role of McCowan during practices leading up to the first meeting.
“Coach is soft though,” Ionescu quipped.
“True,” Graves said when told of the Pac-12 player of the year’s comment. “I'd much rather stand out and shoot 3s. I'm more Boris Diaw than Teaira McCowan.”
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, who was carrying around a six-inch folder of scouting report notes on the Ducks during Saturday’s practice day at Moda Center, will also have to make adjustments against an all-American.
Ionescu was 5-for-19 from the field in the first meeting but went 17-for-17 at the free-throw line. The junior guard finished with 20 points and five assists, and backcourt mate Maite Cazorla added 20 points and five assists while dissecting the Bulldogs in the pick-and-roll.
“When you play somebody like that, you better be ready,” Schaefer said. “We know we're playing a championship team. They won the Pac-12. They're really good. They're good for a reason. They're smart, they're heady, tough, well-coached. We're going to have to beat them in front of their own people.”
The Ducks’ road to the Final Four has included lopsided wins over No. 15 Portland State (78-40) and No. 10 Indiana (91-68) in Eugene and Friday’s 63-53 victory over No. 6 South Dakota State in Portland.
Now Oregon will have to beat a national championship-caliber team in order to get to Tampa, Fla.
“Until you do it for the first time, you don't really have that blueprint,” Graves said. “They've done it. Now we want to make sure that's us this time.”