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Oregon doesn't figure to be intimidated by UConn

Bridgeport — Kelly Graves was in the midst of his first season coaching the University of Oregon women's basketball team. The Ducks were 13-17, which wasn't exactly helping Graves sleep at night. But then there was this recruiting class he was assembling.

“The one thing that kept us going was we were on the recruiting trail,” said Graves, who came to Oregon after 14 seasons as the head women's coach at Gonzaga. “My family actually stayed in Spokane (Wash., home of Gonzaga) … and I see that as a blessing because there was no guilt. I was able to go on the road and spend a lot of time recruiting.

“We knew what we were able to get on the recruiting trail and with each 'yes,' each commitment, it kind of reenergized us and kept us going through what was a tough year. With each commitment, we were starting to go, 'wow, this is something special, this is something special.'”

Those recruits are now freshmen at Oregon, which, as the No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament's Bridgeport Regional, has cut a swath through some of the great brands of the game, including Duke and Maryland, on the way to this very moment.

Next up for the Ducks (23-13) is top-seeded UConn (35-0), the four-time defending national champion, in the regional final game beginning at 7 p.m. Monday at Webster Bank Arena (ESPN), with a trip to the Final Four on the line. A UConn win would give the Huskies a 10th straight trip to the Final Four, with games scheduled for Friday and Sunday in Dallas.

Oregon advanced to Monday's Elite Eight game, its first in program history, with a 77-63 victory over No. 3 Maryland in Saturday's Sweet 16 round.

Oregon held the Terps, the highest scoring team in the nation, to a season-low that was 27 points under their average. The Ducks scored the game's final eight points after Maryland pulled to within six with 3 minutes, 19 seconds to play — beginning with a basket from smooth-as-silk guard Sabrina Ionescu — with a poise that belied their status as freshmen.

The Ducks have six freshmen on their roster, three who start in Ionescu, a 5-foot-10 guard who averages 14.4 points per game, and a pair of forwards in 6-4 Ruthy Hebard (14.9 ppg) and 6-5 Mallory McGwire (7.5 ppg).

“I was so excited for this class to come in,” said Oregon's Lexi Bando, a junior and the elder statesman of the starting lineup. “There was so much hype around them and the hype was real, incredible players, incredible people off the court and it's just a blessing to be able to play with them.”

“They were too young to know any better,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of what's impressed him about Monday's opponent. “They didn't realize they're supposed to be, like, nervous. They didn't realize this was supposed to be really hard. You're not supposed to just walk into the NCAA tournament and start beating teams with three freshmen in the starting lineup.”

Now, Graves is hoping the Ducks can show that same comportment against UConn, which eliminated fellow Pac-12 school UCLA in Saturday's Sweet 16, beating the Bruins 86-71.

UConn was led in Saturday's game by sophomore forward Napheesa Collier with 27 points and 14 rebounds. Gabby Williams had 17 points, nine rebounds and six assists, Saniya Chong 16 points and Katie Lou Samuelson 15 in what was a six-man rotation for Auriemma.

Graves said he believes that if his team was going to present itself as awe-struck, it would have done so already. He called Auriemma, “the best coach in basketball, male, female, men's basketball, women's basketball,” then followed that with the promise to try to kick Auriemma's butt.

“People can play with them for a time, but can they play with them for 40 minutes?” Graves said of UConn. “That's the challenge we have ahead of us. We've got to play a 40-minute game.

“Things are going to go wrong. We've got to lift our heads up and fight through it and continue to fight and this team has shown that kind of resilience. I'm not going to sit here and say we're happy to be here. We are happy to be here, but I have a really good basketball team and I have a basketball team that believes in themselves and so we're excited for the opportunity.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

NCAA tournament Elite Eight

No. 1 UConn vs. No. 10 Oregon

Location: Webster Bank Arena, Bridgeport.

Tip: 7 p.m. (ESPN).

Records: Oregon 23-13 overall; UConn 35-0.

Last game: Oregon beat No. 3 Maryland 77-63 in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament Saturday; UConn beat No. 4 UCLA 86-71 in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament Saturday.

Probable starters: Oregon, 5-10 So. G Maite Cazorla (8.1 ppg, 3.9 apg), 5-10 Fr. G Sabrina Ionescu (14.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 5.6 apg), 5-9 Jr. G Lexi Bando (10.4 ppg), 6-4 Fr. F Ruthy Hebard (15.0 ppg, 8.7 rpg), 6-5 Fr. F Mallory McGwire (7.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg).

UConn, 5-8 Sr. G Saniya Chong (8.1 ppg), 6-0 Jr. G Kia Nurse (13.0 ppg), 6-3 So. G/F Katie Lou Samuelson (20.7 ppg), 5-11 Jr. F Gabby Williams (13.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.7 spg), 6-1 So. G/F Napheesa Collier (20.4 ppg, 9.0).

Noteworthy: UConn has won 110 straight games, been to nine straight Final Fours and is 94-9 all-time in the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed. All of those things suggest that heading into today's game with No. 10 Oregon, the Huskies have been pretty good at averting upsets. How? “By being (cranky) every day,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Sunday. “You have to get the right kind of kids, generally speaking. … Once they decide to make that commitment and they're willing to give up a little bit of their ego for it, then you can appeal to them about what it takes to get better and how much you have to improve every minute of every day and how you have to prove every game that you're as good as you think you are. Going out and going through the motions and losing to somebody that has no business beating you, that makes you like everybody else, so why did you come here? After a while they get tired of hearing that and they don't want to hear it anymore.” … Oregon, meanwhile, will try to join its men's basketball team, which earned a trip to the Final Four in Phoenix with a 74-60 win Saturday over Kansas. Oregon coach Kelly Graves said he watched the Ducks' men's game, the Gonzaga men's game (Graves used to coach for the women's team at Gonzaga), as well as reviewing film of UConn. “See these bags under these eyes? You can do both,” Graves said with a laugh. “You can watch and enjoy the games and then watch your next opponent, too. Sleep is overrated, quite frankly.” … Coming out of Miramonte High School in Orinda, Calif., Oregon freshman guard Sabrina Ionescu was the fourth-ranked recruit in the nation, according to ESPNw, but was the last one of the top 25 to announce her college commitment. “The cherry on top was Sabrina,” Graves said of Ionescu's addition to his high-profile recruiting class. “She was that Alpha you need to kind of put it all together.” … With six players 6-foot-3 or taller, the Ducks are tied with Kansas State and Texas for the tallest roster in Division I women's basketball this season. Oregon's tallest player is 6-6 freshman forward Lydia Giomi. … This is Oregon's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005, when the Ducks were also a No. 10 seed. … A year from now: Prior to Monday's game with UConn, Oregon was set to return 100 percent of its points and 100 percent of its rebounds from this season's NCAA tournament team. Only one of the Ducks' 50 assists was from a senior.

— Vickie Fulkerson

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