TAMPA, Fla. — Kelly Graves spent some time with Geno Auriemma here Wednesday night.
“He kind of welcomed me to the club,” Graves said. “That really meant something.”
Oregon is making its first appearance at the women’s Final Four, an event UConn has been a part of 20 times.
Graves would like to join the national championship club, too. No coach in Division I basketball history can match Auriemma’s 11 titles.
The Ducks (33-4) face Baylor, the tournament’s top overall seed, in the first national semifinal Friday at Amalie Arena (4 p.m., ESPN2), with UConn and defending national champion Notre Dame to follow.
Sabrina Ionescu will be the focal point defensively for the Bears (35-1), whose only loss of the season was Dec. 15 at Stanford.
“It all starts with Sabrina. What a talent. What a joy to watch, if you're not having to play against her,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “The thing that I love more than her talent is I love the way she competes. She's got that umph in her. She makes everybody around her better. She's just a special, special talent.”
Ionescu, the NCAA’s all-time leader in career triple-doubles, is the only player averaging over 15 points (19.9), seven rebounds (7.5) and seven assists (8.2) this season.
During Oregon’s breakthrough win over Mississippi State in the Portland Regional final last Sunday, the junior guard finished with 31 points, seven rebounds and eight assists.
“Being here last year and not being able to participate in the Final Four with my team was bittersweet of course,” Ionescu said of traveling to pick up her Nancy Lieberman Award as the nation’s top point guard after the Elite Eight loss to Notre Dame. “I appreciated and was honored with the awards that I got. But I wanted to come here and compete with my team. It’s a whole different atmosphere, it’s a whole different competitiveness. You’re playing against the top teams in the country, the top players in the country.
“I think I still have that hunger of wanting to play until that last game is played.”
In order to advance to Sunday’s national championship game, the Ducks will have to deal with the one-two punch in the post of 6-foot-7 center Kalani Brown and 6-4 forward Lauren Cox.
The twin towers have averaged a combined 30.1 points and 18.0 rebounds during Baylor’s dominant NCAA Tournament run.
“The thing about it is they’re two All-Americans. It’s not like when we played Mississippi State and they had Teaira McCowan,” Oregon assistant Jodie Berry said. “Baylor has two who can both really score the basketball from that high-low opportunity. We just have to make it as tough as we can. Our kids have to be really strong and physical.”
Ruthy Hebard scored 14 points and made a key block on the 6-7 McCowan to help seal the Ducks’ elusive Elite Eight triumph. Satou Sabally has been spectacular throughout the postseason and finished with 22 points and seven rebounds in the regional final.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge, but it’s good basketball. They play really good basketball. We’re excited to play against them,” Sabally said. “Our team is tall, too. They have some smaller guards, so it evens out. We’re not going to worry about the height difference inside.
“This game will depend on who wants it more.”
Mulkey has won two national championships at Baylor but this is the program’s first Final Four appearance since 2005.
During the drought, the Bears lost four consecutive regional finals, including in 2016 to Oregon State, before Monday’s 85-53 Elite Eight blowout win over Iowa.
“We lost some really heartbreaking tournament games, but I walked off that floor realizing that that team just played unbelievable,” Mulkey said. “It wasn't like we gave it away, wasn't like we played bad. It just happens. That's why they call it March Madness.
“You just keep plugging away, you keep working. We're here again.”
After winning the national championship in 2005, Mulkey told Baylor fans to enjoy it because you never know when, or if, it will happen again.
Oregon figures to be in the mix for national championships in the years to come with the ink still drying on Graves’ lengthy contract extension.
But this will be the only Final Four for steady seniors Maite Cazorla and Oti Gildon. And there is still a chance Ionescu will decide to leave for the WNBA this year.
This is the time to join the national championship club.
“I think we've smiled so much this whole week, these last few days for sure,” Ionescu said. “We're definitely just enjoying the moment, enjoying the experience and everything that it has to offer.
“Now it's game time. We're focusing on the game. We're not really going to change who we are. We're going to enjoy and be appreciative of the position we're in.”