Someone find a chisel.
Sabrina Ionescu has already established herself as an Oregon legend, an all-time great not only in the sport of women’s basketball but among anyone who’s ever donned a Duck jersey.
Now it’s time to make room on Mount Rushmore.
About 24 hours after Oregon’s season ended with a Final Four loss to Baylor, Ionescu announced she will return for her senior season. That wasn’t a surprise; like their Elite Eight loss to Notre Dame a year earlier, the Ducks’ hard-fought defeat against Baylor was bound to ignite Ionescu’s competitive fuse.
Reaching the Final Four was Oregon’s mission this season. The Ducks put pictures of the Tampa skyline in their locker room and circled the Portland Regional in red.
Well, mission accomplished. Of course the Ducks would like to be playing Notre Dame in Sunday’s national title game, but getting to the Final Four was this team’s benchmark.
Now that they’ve checked that box, we all know what comes next. Ionescu is coming back for one reason and one reason alone: to win a national championship.
"I couldn’t be happier to announce that I’m coming back to the University of Oregon for the 2019-2020 basketball season," Ionescu wrote in The Players Tribune. "I won’t predict exactly how far we’re going to go….. but I’ll just say this.
"We have unfinished business."
With their top four scorers returning, the Ducks should be next year’s preseason No. 1. They’ll have to replace Maite Cazorla’s leadership and Oti Gildon’s experience, but the addition of Nyara Sabally will make them better equipped to handle a dominant inside game like Baylor’s.
Notre Dame loses four starters, including star guard Arike Ogunbowale. Connecticut loses top scorers Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson. Baylor center Kalani Brown, who muscled the Ducks for 22 points, is a senior.
With another year together, Oregon’s core group has a chance to set their legacy in stone. That’s especially true of Ionescu, whose place as a program great is already secure.
Ionescu finished her junior season fourth on Oregon’s career scoring list, first in assists and just outside the top 10 in rebounds and steals. She’s 16 points away from 2,000 and will break Alison Lang’s career record of 2,252 with little trouble as long as she stays healthy.
Oregon doesn’t retire numbers or hang jerseys at Matthew Knight Arena, but the Ducks might need to make an exception for Ionescu. With another year to chase a national championship, she has a chance to depart as the all-time greatest Duck.
Is that too strong? I don’t think so. When you talk about the greatest athletes to wear green and yellow, you’re talking about revolutionaries who changed the way the game is played.
Steve Prefontaine inspired generations of runners to follow in his footsteps. Ashton Eaton redefined what it means to be the world’s greatest athlete. Marcus Mariota stretched that boundaries of what a quarterback can do.
In the same way, Ionescu is changing the perception of what’s possible for a basketball player. Her 18 triple-doubles are already an NCAA record; with another year, she can render that record virtually untouchable.
She’s also expanding the definition of stardom for someone in her sport. She didn’t start with the platform of a star football or men’s basketball recruit, but by the time she’s finished at Oregon, I can’t imagine there will be a serious sports fan anywhere who doesn’t know her name.
No one could have blamed Ionescu had she decided to declare for the WNBA draft. What she’s given the Ducks — three Elite Eight trips, a Final Four, two Pac-12 titles and countless celebrations — is a career’s worth of accomplishments.
Even if the financial enticements of the WNBA aren’t overwhelming, there’s always the injury risk to keep in mind. Ionescu has been remarkably healthy in her Oregon career, but one awkward twist could spoil the fairy-tale ending in a hurry.
For Ionescu, you can see why that’s a risk worth taking. The WNBA, the shoe deals and the TV commercials will be there when she’s ready. Right now it’s all about checking the final box and leading Oregon to a national championship.
"Something is happening here," she wrote. "We’re building a program — and not just any program. We’re building a program that wins national championships."
The chase starts now.