Off to Oregon’s first appearance in the Final Four, guard Sabrina Ionescu set the theme for the second-seeded Ducks.
“All I gotta say is we’re not done yet,” Ionescu said after she had 31 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in Oregon’s 88-84 victory Sunday over top-seeded Mississippi State in Portland, Oregon.
Satou Sabally had 22 points and seven rebounds for the Ducks (33-4), who head to Tampa, Florida, to face the winner of Monday’s game between top overall seed Baylor and Iowa.
At the final buzzer, Ionescu jumped into teammate Ruthy Hebard’s arms and coach Kelly Graves flashed an “O” with his hands to the crowd. The Ducks had been eliminated in the Elite Eight the past two seasons.
As Ionescu cut down a piece of the net, fans at the Moda Center chanted “One more year!” at the junior guard, who has been dogged by rumors she may skip her final year to go pro.
Teaira McCowan had 19 points and 15 rebounds in her final game for the Bulldogs (33-3), who had played in the NCAA title game for the past two seasons. Two of Mississippi State’s losses this season were to Oregon, and the first one was a true road game in Eugene.
It certainly had the feeling of an away game for Mississippi State, even though the Bulldogs wore their home whites. Attendance at the Moda Center was announced at 11,534, with the vast majority cheering on the Ducks – a tough draw for a top seed.
“For us, man, I just can’t be prouder of my team today. You talk about competitive, tough. I just thought my team just fought tooth and nail today in a really hostile environment,” Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer said.
Ionescu’s jumper put Oregon up 78-73 with just under three minutes left. After McCowan made a pair of free throws, Ionescu added a 3 that put the crowd on its feet and essentially put it away for the Ducks.
Bre’Amber Scott’s layup with 54 seconds left pulled the Bulldogs within 81-77, but Maite Cazorla answered with a 3-pointer for the Ducks. Jazzmun Holmes’ jumper cut the margin to five points with 26.4 seconds to go, but Mississippi State could not catch up.
Oregon also beat Mississippi State in December, ending the Bulldogs’ streak of 46 consecutive regular-season nonconference wins.
Ionescu averaged 19.6 points, 8.3 assists and 7.5 rebounds going into Sunday’s game. The Pac-12 Player of the Year has 18 career triple-doubles, an NCAA record among men and women, including eight this season.
“I’m never amazed at anything she does really, after three years,” Graves said. “You just expect the incredible.”
The Bulldogs went up 15-8 early, but Sabally hit a 3-pointer that closed the gap as Oregon relied on its perimeter game. Oregon finished with 13 3s.
Ionescu’s 3-pointer tied it at 19, but the Bulldogs had free throws to make it 21-19 at the end of the first quarter. The Ducks hit five of eight 3-pointers in the opening period alone.
Oregon pulled in front 30-27 on Cazorla’s 3-pointer in the second quarter. The Ducks led 40-38 at the break. Ionescu led all scorers with 15 points, including three 3-pointers.
Hebard was tasked with guarding McCowan, but she had two fouls and went to the bench midway through the second quarter. But she opened the second half with a layup, and Ionescu added another to give the Ducks a 44-38 lead. Andra Espinoza-Hunter made a 3-pointer to close the gap.
Oregon held the edge until Howard’s layup put the Bulldogs in front 54-53.
Mississippi State got a scare late in the quarter when McCowan went down hard on a layup attempt and stayed on the floor for several moments. She went to the bench holding the right side of her chest.
“A loss is a loss, you know? It doesn’t feel good,” McCowan said. “But I’m proud of my team, my coaching staff we got this far. We had a great season. Nothing to hang our heads on. Yeah, it hurts, but we’ll be OK.”
Connecticut 80, Louisville 73: Katie Lou Samuelson put UConn on her injured back in Albany, New York, and shot the Huskies into a record 12th straight Final Four.
Samuelson scored 29 points and second-seeded UConn held off No. 1 Louisville 80-73 in the Albany Regional Final.
“She made some shots today that only really special players make at this particular time,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “This is when players separate themselves in these games.”
The Huskies (35-2) have won six national championships and had a 111-game winning streak during their remarkable Final Four run. They will be looking to try and reach the title game for the first time in three years after they have lost on last-second shots in the past two national semifinals.
“I don’t think it’s supposed to happen,” Auriemma said of the incredible run. “Not in today’s world the way things change and teams keep getting better and better. It’s not normal. It’s something that’s hard to describe because even if you’re writing a book and making it up, people would say it doesn’t happen in real life. It has happened in real life, I’m still boggled, my mind doesn’t get how it can happen this many years in a row with a different cast of characters that change so often. No it’s not normal, it’s not normal.”
Samuelson hit seven of the team’s 14 3-pointers, including many big shots in the fourth quarter.
“I wanted to keep my career going,” she said. “I had to step up. They were really making it hard for us, so I had to do what I could.”
UConn needed every one of them as the team nearly blew an 11-point lead in the final 1:47 of the game.
Louisville scored 10 of 11 points to cut its deficit to 75-73 with 26.6 seconds left. Samuelson then hit two free throws to make it a two-possession game.
Asia Durr was fouled a few seconds later, but the Cardinals’ senior leader missed both free throws. Napheesa Collier was fouled after the Cardinals’ missed a chance on an offensive rebound. She stepped up and sank both free throws on the other end to make it 79-73.
As the buzzer sounded, the Huskies all mobbed Samuelson at the foul line celebrating another trip to the Final Four.
“It’s amazing just to be part of this program, just to wear this name on our chest every day,” Samuelson said. “You know you’re part of something special. And they’ve created something amazing here. And for us we just want to be part of that and keep it going as long as we can.”
Louisville (32-4) was looking to become only the second team to beat UConn twice in a season in the past decade, joining fellow ACC school Notre Dame, which did it in 2012 and 2013. The Huskies could face the Irish in the Final Four in Tampa if Notre Dame beats Stanford in the Chicago Regional final on Monday night.
UConn was not a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2006. While much was made of that leading up to this game, the only real differences as coach Geno Auriemma put it was that his team would wear the road blues and would be sitting on a different bench. The Huskies band also played the national anthem pregame. It certainly wasn’t a road game though with a very pro UConn crowd of 9,204 with the Albany site a 2-hour drive from Connecticut.
Samuelson has been dealing with a back injury since getting hurt against Houston in the final home game. She missed the entire American Athletic Conference Tournament. She struggled in the Sweet 16 victory over UCLA, scoring just six points and not hitting a basket until the fourth quarter.
She was much better against Louisville despite being saddled with foul trouble.
Her fifth 3-pointer of the game late in the third quarter gave UConn a 10-point lead. She soon after picked up her fourth foul and Louisville was able to cut its deficit to 57-53 heading into the final period.
The Cardinals hung around and were only down 66-62 when Samuelson hit a 3-pointer. With 3:02 left, Samuelson hit another 3-pointer and was fouled. She missed the ensuing free throw, but it gave UConn a 72-63 lead. The Cardinals trailed by 11 with 1:47 left before the exciting finish.
“It was a great basketball game. There was a lot of big plays made by both teams, unfortunately for us they made a few more,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “If you didn’t sit back and watch this game and appreciate how it was being played, then it’s a shame.”
Durr saw her brilliant career come to an end as she scored 18 of her 21 points in the second half to lead the Cardinals.
Samuelson got UConn going early. She hit a 3-pointer from the wing in the first quarter as UConn scored the first seven points of the game. Her back, which she injured late in the regular season, didn’t seem to be bothering her too much.
Louisville bounced back with a 9-0 run to go up 16-12. The Huskies scored the final 10 points of the quarter to lead 22-16. Durr missed all eight of her shots from the field in the period, but did have five rebounds and three assists.
The lead grew to 10 before Louisville made a run to get within four. The Huskies were up 41-34 at the half as Megan Walker had 12 of her 13 points, hitting four of UConn’s nine 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes. UConn only hit eight 3s in the loss to Louisville in January.
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