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Blast to the past for Ducks coach Graves

SPOKANE — Kelly Graves is headed back to his old stomping grounds with another opportunity to get to the Final Four.

But will the locals cheer for the former Gonzaga coach and his new team? Or perhaps root for the underdog from a small conference?

Graves and second-seeded Oregon will find out on Saturday against 11th-seeded Central Michigan in the Sweet 16 at Spokane Arena (approximately 3:30 p.m., ESPN).

“I think everybody roots for the underdog to some degree,” Graves said. “I’d like to think the Zag fans will be Duck fans this week. I was there 14 years, and we built a program really from scratch into a national power, quite frankly, and a mid-major people to this day still compare other mid-major programs to.”

Graves guided Gonzaga to 10 consecutive West Coast Conference championships and seven NCAA Tournament appearances, including two trips to the Sweet 16 and one Elite Eight run.

In the 2011 regional final in Spokane, the Zags lost to Stanford. Graves remembers vividly subbing three-time WCC player of the year Courtney Vandersloot out of her final collegiate game to a standing ovation in the final moments.

“That was an amazing team that we had,” Graves recalled. “Courtney Vandersloot did to Gonzaga basketball what I think Sabrina can do for Oregon.”

Sabrina Ionescu, the Pac-12 player of the year, is already preparing for her seventh NCAA Tournament game as a sophomore after leading the Ducks to Pac-12 regular-season and conference tournament championships this season.

During Oregon’s lopsided wins over No. 15 Seattle University and No. 10 Minnesota at Matthew Knight Arena in the first two rounds last weekend, Ionescu averaged 24.0 points, 10.0 assists and 8.5 rebounds.

Graves even mentioned his Vandersloot comparison to Ionescu during the recruiting process.

“He told me all the things she had done and that I could come in and do to impact the team,” Ionescu said. “I didn’t think we’d be at this point this soon. It takes a team, it’s not just me, and my teammates put me in a position to lead this team to the heights that we’re at.”

Lexi Bando, Oregon’s career leader in three-pointers, thought she would be playing for Graves at Gonzaga after a stellar prep career at Willamette High.

But four years ago, after Paul Westhead’s contract expired, athletic director Rob Mullens and deputy athletic director Lisa Peterson targeted Graves to rebuild the Ducks.

“That’s like our coach’s second home. I never made it on campus there,” Bando said of finally getting to play in Spokane. “I was nervous that he was going to take this job, then he did. So I decided to make moves as well.”

Eventually, Gonzaga let Bando out of her signed letter of intent so she could join Graves’ rebuilding effort at Oregon.

“I was really grateful,” Bando said. “Their program is amazing, and their coaches were awesome with, like, releasing me. It was a long process, so I don’t recommend it to anyone, but I am very lucky that I was able to come here.”

Oregon forward Ruthy Hebard has family in Spokane, and key backup Oti Gildon is also returning home after leading Gonzaga Prep to two state titles.

Assistant coach Jodie Berry helped Graves turn Gonzaga into a consistent winner before following him to Eugene.

There will be plenty of deja vu for the Ducks at the Spokane Regional.

“When we first watched them, Jodie and I looked at each other and we said, ‘This looks like our old Zag teams,’” Graves said of Central Michigan. “They can all shoot it, they can all handle it, they can all pass it. The play unselfishly and really hard. It’s a good team.”

The Ducks (32-4), who had never been to the Sweet 16 until last season, have a chance to get to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year if they can knock off the Chippewas (30-4) from the Mid-American Conference.

Graves has often said that he was extremely happy at Gonzaga but decided to leave because he believes he can win a national championship at Oregon.

Perhaps fittingly, the Ducks’ road to the Final Four winds through Spokane.

“I’ll have a fond place in my heart for Spokane, for Gonzaga. Personally, it’s going to be pretty neat, especially for my family, too,” Graves said. “Professionally, I’m just excited because we have a chance to move on and win another two-game tournament.”

Oregon coach Kelly Graves directs his team against Stanford during the finals of the Pac-12 Conference women’s tournament March 4 in Seattle. - The Associated Press