TAMPA, Fla. — In some ways, Geno Auriemma is jealous of the Ducks.
Oregon is experiencing the pure elation of making it to the Final Four for the first time.
Kelly Graves’ team, despite being ranked in the top five most of the season, can play the role of plucky underdog against top-ranked Baylor, which is seeking its third national championship.
UConn has won 11 national championships and is making the program’s 12th consecutive Final Four appearance.
Auriemma said it’s more difficult to enjoy the ride when he’s constantly being asked about the Huskies’ two losses this season (to Baylor and Louisville) and the heartbreaking last-second defeats in their last two national semifinals games (buzzer-beaters to Mississippi State and Notre Dame).
“It's odd because what would be viewed as a magical season at every single school in America except ours, (is portrayed as) ‘This is a struggle, man, 35-2. I don't know how they managed to do this ... it's remarkable that they're in the Final Four with two losses,’” Auriemma said. “It's the most bizarre thing I've ever experienced. But it's commonplace here. I'm thrilled that there's this feeling of joy because these accomplishments are meant to be celebrated.
“I do think our fan base has become spoiled. I do think they've lost sense of reality. Hopefully this year they realize this is really hard.”
The Ducks figured that out two years ago when UConn ran them off the court in the Bridgeport Regional final to end an otherwise brilliant breakthrough campaign when Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard were true freshmen.
Last year’s loss to Notre Dame was even more painful because Oregon had a six-point lead at halftime. Ionescu and Hebard went to the Final Four to pick up awards as the national player of the year at their respective positions while the Irish went on to win the title.
“The first year against UConn, they destroyed us. We really played no good quarters in that game. We weren't quite ready for that stage,” Graves said. “We got a little bit better last year, but in the end weren't good enough to get Notre Dame. I know one of the focuses this year was to get here to a Final Four. We didn't want to be an Elite Eight program, we wanted to be a Final Four program.
“I know our players were hungry and really determined to get there. Now that it's here, we're certainly excited.”
The team has been basking in the glow of the sport’s brightest spotlight since outlasting Mississippi State in the Portland Regional final on Sunday.
“It’s amazing, it’s a dream come true,” senior guard Maite Cazorla said. “We’ve been through a lot, you know. I think we deserve it. We worked hard and did what we needed to do. It’s just been amazing.
“My freshman year we weren’t that good, went to the WNIT. Then we kept building. We knew this year it had to be ours and we did it.”
The players received their Nike swag bags upon arrival Tuesday and spent some time in front of the ESPN cameras before practicing at the University of Tampa on Wednesday.
All four teams will have practices and press conferences Thursday at Amalie Arena.
Oregon will play Baylor in the first national semifinal at 4 p.m. Friday with the UConn-Notre Dame game to follow. Both games will be televised on ESPN2, and fans can watch the Ducks at Matthew Knight Arena.
Graves spoke with some other coaches with Final Four experience, including Oregon’s Dana Altman on the men’s side, for tips on how to balance soaking up the experience with preparing to play an elite opponent on the grandest stage.
“What a lot of them did say is don’t change,” Graves said. “Now is not the time to put in new stuff or try to change who you are. Just go with what’s gotten you here and see if it works.”
Ionescu is obviously Oregon’s emotional and on-court leader. The back-to-back Pac-12 player of the year is one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy given to the national player of the year. There is a good chance she will pick up the hardware Saturday.
During the 88-84 win over Mississippi State, the junior guard finished with 31 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Ionescu is motivated to leave the Ducks with an NCAA championship, whether that’s this spring to enter the WNBA draft or following her senior year.
“Sabrina has done that over the years. When she has doubters and haters, she uses that as fuel, ‘Hey, I’ll show you,’” Graves said. “I think we’re confident in who we are and the fact that we’ve been knocking on the door. I think our kids are ready and excited.
“Now that we’ve pushed through one ceiling we want to go a little bit further.”
Graves signed a contract extension just before the NCAA Tournament that could keep him at Oregon through the 2028-29 season.
Duck fans would love to see the Final Four experience become routine. Lexi Bando, a four-year starter, predicted as much for the program.
“UConn’s a program I feel Oregon is going to become,” Bando said during last year’s postseason run ended one step shy of the Final Four. “We’re going to become a dynasty here. We’re going to continue to get better each year, bring in really great recruits. I think it was a really good learning experience for us.”