Freshman starters keep Oregon dancing
Back before the start of Pac-12 conference play, Oregon freshman Ruthy Hebard made the bold prediction that the Ducks would surprise the league.
Turns out, they've surprised the nation.
Oregon, the only team in the NCAA Tournament with three freshmen in its starting lineup, is in the Sweet 16 field for the first time in program history. The Ducks join a record five Pac-12 schools to advance to the round.
Tenth-seeded Oregon (22-13) heads to Connecticut for the Bridgeport Regional where the team will face third-seeded Maryland (32-2) on Saturday.
Oregon advanced with a dramatic 74-65 upset of second-seeded Duke in the second round. Hebard led the Ducks — making their first appearance in the tournament since 2005 — with 20 points and 15 rebounds.
Hebard, who is from Fairbanks, Alaska, was part of a recruiting class that was ranked among the best in the nation. She currently leads the Ducks with an average of 14.9 points and 8.7 rebounds overall.
In two tournament games, she is averaging 21.5 points and 11 rebounds, and shooting 58.1 percent from the field.
Earlier this season, Oregon popped into the rankings for the first time since 2003. But the Ducks were challenged in the tough Pac-12, which had a record seven teams make the NCAA Tournament field this season. Oregon also struggled for a time with injuries to freshman Sabrina Ionescu and sophomore point guard Maite Cazorla.
But Hebard was undeterred back in December. She said she thought the Ducks were underrated.
"Like coach Kelly (Graves) always says, it doesn't matter what the rankings are," she said, "we just have to keep doing us."
Following the victory over Duke, Hebard noted that now it doesn't matter what the seeds are.
"Seeds don't really mean anything. We are all going to come out and play our hardest and hopefully we will keep winning," she said.
Hebard is joined in the starting lineup by Ionescu, who was considered one of the top prospects in the nation when she committed to Oregon by simply showing up on campus and surprising Graves and his staff.
Named the Pac-12's Freshman of the Year, Ionescu made a splash with four triple-doubles. She leads the nation in the category and is just two shy of the NCAA record.
Overall, she's averaging 14.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists for the Ducks.
Ionescu made six free throws in the final 24.5 seconds to help put away Duke. She finished with 13 points, eight rebounds and six assists. In the second half she was headed into a timeout huddle when she was knocked to the ground by Duke forward Kendall Cooper, but officials didn't see it as intentional.
Back in Eugene for two days following the game for final exams, Ionescu posted video of the knock on Twitter joking: "Finals hit me like ..."
With all their tests taken, the Ducks headed to Bridgeport on Thursday.
Coach Graves, in his third season with the Ducks, said the team never set goals for the season because the coaches simply didn't know what they had with all the new faces. In addition to Hebard and Ionescu, freshman Mallory McGwire starts for the Ducks.
McGwire, a 6-foot-5 forward from Reno, Nevada, is averaging 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds this season.
Together, the freshmen have accounted for 63 percent of Oregon's points in the tournament .
"We've kind of attacked the entire season as just a work in progress, let's get better today than we were yesterday and continue to improve. I think with a young team you have to do that," Graves said. "That's all that they can really focus on and that's what we've done. We continue to get better. "