Oregon women’s basketball program will seek an alpha leader this offseason

The Oregon Ducks women’s basketball program isn’t used to staying home after the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

The Oregon program has had great success under Coach Kelly Graves while in Eugene. Graves led the Ducks to five consecutive Sweet 16s, three consecutive Elite Eights and a Final Four appearance in 2019.

However, the Ducks suffered a surprising 73-70 double-overtime loss to the Belmont Bruins in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last weekend. It was Oregon’s first NCAA Tournament outing in Graves’ tenure since 2016.

Graves took responsibility for the Ducks’ underperformance this year, as he has all season. However, he also put some of the burden on the team as he said they sometimes played as if they were privileged.

“We showed flashes of not-so-good basketball,” Graves said after the loss to Belmont. “The consistency just wasn’t there. I think, at times, our players acted and played legitimately. First outing in the first round in a long time.

“This group didn’t win anything. We didn’t win a Pac-12 championship. We didn’t win the NCAA Tournament, with great depth. You know, I think we need to come back and work harder and be tougher.

“I think sometimes we’re not tough. I think there were times tonight – at some point you just say, ‘Hey, toughen up, let’s go. I know you’re stoned. I just think it happens, and I think it’s a state of mind. I think we need to come back hungrier because we are no longer the hunted ones.

Oregon coach Kelly Graves waits for a foul call from the referees during the second half against Utah on January 26, 2022.

Lack of leadership

The absence of leaders like Sabrina Ionescu continues to weigh heavily on the Ducks’ program. During Ionescu’s four years at Oregon, the Ducks qualified for the Elite Eight in 2017 and 2018 before playing in the program’s first Final Four in 2019. Oregon was one of the favorites to win the national championship in 2020 before the COVID pandemic forced the cancellation of the NCAA tournament.

That offseason, Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally left for the WNBA, and the Ducks program has been searching for their identities ever since. Oregon made the Sweet 16 in 2021 but lost to Louisville after the team suffered injuries to Maddie Scherr and Nyara Sabally.

Oregon had high expectations heading into the 2021-22 season as it was ranked 10th in the AP Top 25 preseason poll. But the year couldn’t have started off worse as Sabally, Te- Hina Paopao and USC transfer Endyia Rogers all struggled with injuries that kept them sidelined for much of the first two months of the season. The Ducks went from top 10 to unranked in the polls after a 6-4 start.

As Sabally, Paopao and Rogers returned, the season-long rollercoaster ride continued. However, the season-high included an eight-game winning streak, highlighted by wins over No. 7 Arizona and No. 9 Connecticut. But the Ducks lost five of 10 games to end the season. regular. Then, Oregon was sent to the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament by Utah.

Moreover, even in a win over California in late February, Graves challenged Oregon’s leadership after scoring 52 points and winning by five points. Signs of an early exit were still evident with the Ducks, so the loss to Belmont was no surprise.

With Oregon’s season on the line in the fourth quarter and both overtimes, Belmont was quicker to drop balls and had more combat and energy, even when the team had the lead. The Ducks, after being solid defensively guarding the 3-point line, allowed Belmont to shoot 33 percent (12-for-36) in the first-round loss.

“You can’t give up three in overtime when you’ve built a lead,” Graves said. “They mean well, but tactically that’s not what you can do. Then they made us pay. They made us pay.

“Yeah, offensively, I thought this year was our tough side of the ball. Our defense was pretty consistent. Our numbers have been better than they’ve been in a long time since I’ve been here anyway. I think we have good attacking players, it’s just not quite – we’re just not there, again, with the consistency.”

Strong core and top 5 recruiting class

With leadership or lack thereof matters for the Ducks, where does the team go from here? The good news is that Oregon has Rogers (14.6 ppg) and Paopao (13.6) back who finished second and third on the team in scoring. Sedona Prince, who averaged 9.3 points and 4.9 rebounds, said she would also be back.

Oregon also has a talented recruiting class coming in with many players returning from a team that finished second in the Pac-12.

ESPN ranks Oregon’s recruiting class of 2022 fourth in the nation. The Ducks will add five-star Chance Gray and Grace VanSlooten. Four-star rookies Jennah Isai and Kennedy Basham also signed with the Ducks.

The biggest question will be whether Sabally will declare for the WNBA Draft. After a career-high 31 points (12 on 24 shooting), 12 rebounds and seven blocks against Belmont and a career mired in injuries, Sabally might decide the time is right as she’s on track to graduate at the spring.

Oregon players and coaches question a rude call on Oregon State's Ellie Mac, left, as they rushed to force a turnover in the final moments of the game on February 13, 2022 .

The search for the alpha

Even if Sabally returns, Graves said he will look for a leader, either in the transfer portal or when recruiting.

“We’re all looking for that,” Graves said. “Some have it, some don’t. Funny enough, over the last few recruiting cycles we haven’t had a chance to do house calls and find out. You learn a lot when you sit in someone’s office, the living room.

“Yeah, we’re missing that alpha, and a lot of times if it comes from the coach, that leadership, then we have issues. We have leadership ability and leadership shows up from time to time, but that’s the consistency.”

“We just kind of have to either nurture that, recruit that, empower that. We just have to do a better job, and we haven’t. I thought it was coming back to bite us and it certainly has in several games this year.”

Contact Register-Guard sportswriter Antwan Staley at astaley@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.

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