PORTLAND — Dan Ionescu fled Romania in 1990, not long after the country’s communist leader was marched in front of a firing squad and executed.
Ionescu left behind his wife and young son to start a new life in California. Five years passed before the family was reunited.
At the time, Ionescu had no idea what would be possible in America for his fiery, strong-willed daughter. As he surveyed the jubilant scene Sunday at the Moda Center, he was still coming to terms with the spectacle and the entire Sabrina Ionescu phenomenon.
“I’m still looking at her as a person, as a human being, as a kid, as a nice person,” her father said.
To those surrounding Sabrina on the court, she was more like a holy figure. Reporters and cameras crowded around her. Fans waited just to stand in her presence. Parents brought babies to receive her blessing.
Meanwhile, Ionescu was walking around with the detached strands of the net, making sure everyone on the team got a piece.
“They asked if I wanted it, and I said no,” she said. “I think everyone that’s a part of this program, everyone that is here, is deserving of a piece of that net.”
If you want to know why Ionescu is a perfect leader for the Oregon basketball team, Sunday was the foremost example.
She scored 31 points, dealt eight assists, grabbed seven rebounds and didn’t leave the floor for a single second. Her 3-pointer with 1:13 remaining was, along with Maite Cazorla’s shot 38 seconds later, part of a 1-2 punch that knocked out No. 1 seed Mississippi State and sent the Ducks to their first Final Four, 88-84 winners in the Portland Regional finals.
Nationally, Ionescu continues to achieve new levels of stardom. But an important part of the story, and one of the secrets to Oregon’s success, is how she’s never allowed her star status to overshadow the team around her.
The Ducks wouldn’t be in the Final Four without Cazorla’s steady hand, Ruthy Hebard’s post presence, Satou Sabally’s versatility and Erin Boley’s outside shooting. The few times they’ve looked vulnerable this season, it was because Ionescu was trying to compensate for something they were missing in another area.
Sunday, the Ducks had everything in perfect measure. And they needed it, because Mississippi State was a determined, experienced opponent that refused to concede.
“Congratulations to Oregon,” said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, whose team appeared in the past two Final Fours. “I thought they were really special today.
“They’re going to go on a journey that they haven’t been on before. We’ve been on it a couple times. It’s going to be a really special week for them.”
This game was everything you could ask from a regional final. The teams swapped leads 15 times, and neither led by more than seven. Though the Ducks didn’t trail in the fourth quarter, Mississippi State never allowed the pro-Oregon crowd to relax or celebrate prematurely.
Only when the buzzer sounded could Ionescu chuck the ball toward the ceiling and join her teammates at midcourt for a group hug. As she settled in front of her locker with a half-eaten piece of pizza, Ionescu struggled to reconstruct those first few moments of jubilation.
“I threw the ball up and ran,” she said. “Now I remember.”
The Ducks had tried to stay levelheaded about Sunday’s stakes — “just another game,” Ionescu said Saturday — but the significance was undeniable. A third straight loss in the Elite Eight would have been a bitter disappointment for a group that had been eyeing a trip to Tampa Bay since the moment Notre Dame ended their season a year ago.
That was especially true of Ionescu, who remembered being in Columbus, Ohio, last year to accept an award while the Irish were playing in the Final Four.
“I was going to get lunch, and I remember seeing Notre Dame’s bus drive by with three or four cop cars in front, escorting them to practice,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Wow, that could have been us.’
“At that moment I knew I was going to do everything to get to this position.”
Oregon will be the novice in this year’s Final Four. Connecticut has already secured a spot, and Monday’s regional finals include three programs — Stanford, Baylor and Notre Dame — with multiple national championships.
The Ducks no longer have the homecourt edge, but if you think Oregon will be intimidated, you haven’t been paying attention. The Ducks are fully capable of bringing home a national championship, in part because they have Ionescu as their leader.
“She was made for moments like this,” coach Kelly Graves said.
Everywhere Ionescu turned after the game, there was someone waiting to give her a hug, to lean in for a picture or put a baby in her hands. In the midst of all the chaos, Ionescu ran to press row and handed a piece of the net to Terry Jonz, the team’s play-by-play announcer.
“Everyone is a piece of the puzzle,” she explained later. “I just started cutting up the net, making sure everyone was taken care of and had a piece of that.”
It was the last assist of a perfect game.
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.