PORTLAND — This madness for the Ducks began two Marches ago in Durham, N.C.
As a true freshman, Ruthy Hebard calmly buried a shot with six seconds left and then blocked a layup attempt with one second left to deliver Oregon’s 71-70 victory over Temple for the program’s first NCAA Tournament win in 12 years.
The 10th-seeded Ducks — who celebrated the breakthrough inside a relatively quiet Cameron Indoor Stadium that was without the “Cameron Crazies” that evening — survived and advanced to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight round for the first time in program history.
Last season Oregon won the Pac-12 championship for the first time in 18 years and the conference tournament for the only time en route to another regional final, where eventual national champion Notre Dame spoiled the fun.
Led by more late-game heroics from Hebard and the latest legendary performance by Sabrina Ionescu, the Ducks have finally realized their hoop dreams.
Second-seeded Oregon is headed to the program’s first Final Four after beating No. 1 Mississippi State 88-84 in the Portland Regional final on Sunday in front of an electrifying crowd of 11,534 at Moda Center.
The Ducks (33-4) will play either Baylor or Iowa in the national semifinals Friday in Tampa, Fla.
“This was as good a game as I've been a part of,” coach Kelly Graves said after improving to 10-2 in the NCAA Tournament with Oregon. “I thought both teams played really well. Both teams played well enough to win the game. We just made a few extra plays down the stretch.”
Hebard swatted a layup attempt by 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan and then blocked a shot by Bre’Amber Scott on the key defensive possession. After the critical stop, Ionescu knocked down a 3-pointer to give the Ducks an 81-75 lead with 1:12 remaining.
“That block Ruthy made was a remarkable play that we will remember for a long time,” Oregon assistant Xavi Lopez said of the deja vu sequence. “That play against Temple probably is the play that changed the course of our program. Everything started there for sure.”
Scott scored to cut the deficit to four points, but Maite Cazorla answered with a dagger from behind the arc to extend Oregon’s lead to 84-77 with 35.4 seconds left.
The senior guard from Spain, who began her collegiate career with classmate Oti Gildon playing in front of thousands of empty seats at Matthew Knight Arena, calmly pulled up for the jumper from her favorite spot on the floor with 16 seconds left on the shot clock.
“It better go in,” Cazorla said of her mindset on the play that put the hotly-contested game on ice. “When I shot it I was like, ‘Please go in!’
“I don’t think that 3 just won the game, I don’t think one player or one action wins the game. We worked hard, we did what we needed to do, and obviously the 3 went in. That helped.”
Ionescu was named the most outstanding player of the regional after finishing with 31 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
The national player of the year candidate notched the 18th triple-double of her career during the second-round romp over Indiana and had 17 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds during Friday’s Sweet 16 win over South Dakota State.
“These past two years when we've made it this far, and we lost in this position, it didn't feel like this. This had a total different feeling to it,” Ionescu said. “I think we were so confident in our ability and our coaches' abilities to get us ready in this position.
"We were all excited last night. I think that feeling showed today on the court.”
Satou Sabally had 22 points and seven rebounds, Hebard had 14 points and five rebounds and Cazorla finished with 11 points, six assists and one turnover in 40 minutes.
All five starters for the Bulldogs (33-3), who lost in the past two NCAA championship games, scored in double figures. McCowan, the SEC player of the year, led her team with 19 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks.
“Congratulations to Oregon. I thought they were really special today,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “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.
“For us, man, I just can't be prouder of my team today. You talk about competitive, tough. I just thought my team just fought tooth and nail today in a really hostile environment. Credit to the community, for the people that came out supporting women's basketball. A great crowd out there today. It's great for our game.”
The game was tied entering the fourth quarter. Erin Boley, who was 0-for-7 from the field against South Dakota State, hit a 3-pointer to give Oregon a 64-59 cushion.
The Bulldogs were back within one point after a corner 3-pointer by Scott. A basket in traffic by Ionescu put Oregon back up by five points (78-73) with 2:27 remaining.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game and they were going to take us all the way down to the end,” said Boley, who could only watch the Spokane Regional final from the bench during her redshirt season as the Ducks were eliminated by Notre Dame, her former team. “We knew we were going to have to fight for it and we did. We did a really good job of keeping our composure, even though they stayed in it.
"We hit some big shots at the end.”
Oregon opened the second half with layups by Hebard and Ionescu to take a 44-38 lead.
McCowan swatted away a Hebard layup and Andra Espinoza-Hunter splashed a 3-pointer on the other end to get the Bulldogs back in rhythm.
Anriel Howard, who scored 30 points during Mississippi State’s 82-74 loss on Dec. 18 in Eugene, finished with 18 points, six rebounds and three assists.
The largest lead for each team was seven points. The score was tied 11 times and there were 15 lead changes.
“It was like a chess match out there,” Oregon assistant Jodie Berry said. “Credit to our players for executing the game plan, sticking with it and grinding out a tough, hard-fought game. “
The Ducks celebrated on the court long after Graves cut the final strand of net from the rim and posed for pictures with the regional championship trophy.
Now the madness moves on to the sport’s biggest stage. Oregon's wildest basketball dream of winning a national championship is within reach.
“We proved to ourselves, if we put our minds to it and we put our hearts to it, we can accomplish anything,” Ionescu said. “All I got to say is we're not done yet.”