The junior all-American was projected to be the No. 1 pick in WNBA draft
TAMPA, Fla. — Sabrina Ionescu still has some unfinished business to attend to at Oregon.
The two-time Pac-12 player of the year and first-team All-American only had 24 hours after Friday’s 72-67 loss to Baylor in the national semifinals to decide whether or not to enter the WNBA draft.
Ionescu has opted to stay at Oregon after her brilliant junior campaign ended with the bitter defeat to the Bears.
“We have unfinished business. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart,” Ionescu wrote in the Players Tribune. “My teammates and I, our coaches, our fans, this program — we’re not going on a ‘run,’ you know what I mean?? We’re not doing one of those things where, like, a team appears out of the blue, on the backs of a few good players, and then makes some noise for a season or two before heading back underground.
“Nah. This isn’t that. We’re building something special in Eugene.”
Ionescu averaged 19.9 points, 8.2 assists and 7.4 rebounds this season. The 5-foot-11 guard scored 18 points in the program’s Final Four debut but was 6-for-24 from the field and missed all seven shots she took in the decisive fourth quarter.
“Sabrina was guarded the whole time, of course, she’s the best player,” forward Ruthy Hebard said. “We tried to do everything we can. She got some good shots and inside they were good at blocking shots, which we figured out. It was hard.”
Baylor, the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, will face defending national champion Notre Dame for the title Sunday night at Amalie Arena.
After losing to the Irish in the regional final last year, Ionescu said the Ducks would be “hunting” the Final Four.
There is only one more step the program can take.
“We continue to learn,” Ionescu said. “We were put in positions we haven't been put in before. But I think this is just going to make us more hungry. We got to this stage that our program has never got to. So I think learning through this game and learning through the previous years, it's just going to get us ready to want to come back.”
With the return of Ionescu — the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s national player of the year who has already shattered the NCAA career record for triple-doubles (18) — Oregon could enter the 2019-20 season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll.
“We're going to look back on this as a tremendous season and another step. It always hurts. It does and it should,” coach Kelly Graves said. “But this was a tremendous season. I think what we've done for basketball in the state of Oregon is incredible. …
“This is a program that's not going anywhere. It's only a program that's going to get better.”
Hebard, rising star Satou Sabally and sharpshooter Erin Boley also return. Graves must replace starting guard Maite Cazorla and reserve forward Oti Gildon, the team’s two seniors who leave with a school-record 113 wins.
“I think they’re going to be amazing,” Cazorla said after finishing with nine points, six assists and two turnovers against Baylor’s suffocating defense. “This hurts. But they’re going to remember that and work harder and try to win it.”
Ionescu was projected to be the top pick in Wednesday’s WNBA draft. Starting salaries for even the most touted rookies in the league are just over $50,000.
“Sabrina is one of a kind in so many aspects — in how she carries herself, in how she approaches the game and how she leads her teammates,” Oregon assistant Jodie Berry said. “She has a high I.Q., so she sees the game differently and she holds herself and her teammates to a higher standard than maybe most people are used to.
“So it’s something that the rest of the team and we as a coaching staff have come to appreciate and enjoy.”
Ionescu’s father, Dan, said before the NCAA Tournament tipped off that he would stand behind his daughter no matter what she decided to do.
“The thing I’m most proud of is how she conducts herself as a human being, as a person,” Dan Ionescu said. “It is very rewarding. That’s what you want is to have an impact on the community and influence kids to follow their dreams. She has done that.
“And she’s your average girl, 5-11, a normal girl. I think it’s kind of like the Steph Curry effect.”
Ionescu’s club and high school coach, Kelly Sopak, had a feeling his star pupil would return for one last run with the Ducks.
“Basketball is more than just playing for Sabrina. It’s the experience,” Sopak said. “I think Oregon has been so great for her. Personally, I think it would be tough to leave. It’s not often you get to play in sold-out arenas for big games, and that’s an experience I’d capture as long as I can.”
Oregon played in front of back-to-back capacity crowds during the Civil War series against Oregon State and drew over 11,000 for its Sweet 16 and Elite Eight victories at Moda Center in the Portland Regional.
After every game at Matthew Knight Arena there is a line of people — kids and adults, male and female — waiting to get Ionescu’s autograph.
During the Ducks’ postseason run, an on-line petition was started asking Nike to start selling Oregon women’s basketball jerseys.
“She has elevated, not only the program, but our whole game,” Graves said. “I think everybody can relate to her because she’s not 6-foot-8, she doesn’t jump four feet high. She’s the every person. …
“She’s giving hope to millions of little girls and boys out there.”
The WNBA is still struggling to step out of the shadow of the NBA. Perhaps Ionescu and her generation can close the popularity and financial gap during her professional career.
The list of players who have taken notice of Ionescu’s game includes Curry, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
“I think she can transcend the game. She has that persona. She can attract people,” Sopak said. “The game in general is looking for the player to move the needle, and she can do that. I think there’s plenty of them now moving the needle right now, a lot of older stars, rising stars, and she can help that momentum and get people to want to watch the game.
“A lot of the viewers that typically like to watch men’s games like her game. That’s something that can draw more people to the game. The more eyes the better.”
Oregon will be back in the national spotlight next season as Ionescu looks to finish her legendary collegiate career with a national championship.
“It’s going to go down as one of the best seasons in history. I think that we’ve proved through these last couple years that we’ve earned the right to be here,” Ionescu said in the somber Oregon locker room on Friday. “I mean, next year just come out and do even more now that we got a taste of this.”