Gettysburg. Cannae. The Somme. Stalingrad. These are some of the fiercest battles fought throughout history. Luckily, mankind has, for the most part, advanced enough such that we can witness metaphorical battles that are a lot more entertaining and don’t involve anyone actually dying.
As if it weren’t obvious enough already, I’m referring to the competition of sports.
As the college basketball season comes to its conclusion, almost all of the bands of roundball warriors from the Pacific Northwest have been eliminated from the various fields of battle. The group known as the Oregon Ducks men’s basketball team was bested by a group of seasoned tacticians from Virginia. The Washington men were felled by the Tar Heels. The once-mighty Gonzaga Bulldogs became Red-Raided by Texas Tech.
But there is one group left standing. The banner they wave is the also that of the Ducks, green and yellow, but this bunch is made up entirely of women. Their leader is thought to be Sabrina Ionescu, a warrior princess at whose feet lay the carcasses of the opponents she and the Ducks have already vanquished.
Let’s recount their victories and then look to the challenges that lie ahead.
Since the final weekend of the regular season, the Ducks have been on an absolute tear. First, they went down to Arizona and came back with victories over both state schools, which sealed for them the regular season conference crown. The following weekend, the Ducks travelled to Las Vegas for the women’s Pac-12 tournament, where they beat Arizona again, for good measure, followed by an overtime win over UCLA—revenge for a loss during the regular season.
In the tournament championship game, Oregon lost a close one against a very powerful Stanford team that was just eliminated from the NCAA tournament this past weekend, which must have provided the Ducks with sensations of Schadenfreude.
The Ducks themselves have done incredibly well in the NCAA tournament, marching right over Portland State, Indiana, South Dakota State, and, most recently and most thrillingly, over Mississippi State, a victory that punched the Ducks’ ticket to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
What are the particular contributions and accomplishments of warrior princess, junior guard Sabrina Ionescu? They are nothing short of incredible. The awards she’s earned are too many to list, but they include the Pac-12 player of the year and the all American first team. Her 13 triple-doubles this season are good enough for the most in NCAA history, for women or men!
She’s arguably the best point guard in America, and she just had a season-high 31 points on 12 field goals against Mississippi State.
Her season stats are staggering: 19 points, 45% on field goals, 43% long balls, 88% at the line, 8 assists and 35 minutes per game.
But what dangers lay on the path ahead? On Friday looms the biggest battle imaginable. Oregon faces Baylor at 4pm on Friday in the national semifinal at Amalie Arena in Tampa. It’s likely to be a hostile environment, in that Baylor fans have less distance to travel and their alums have presumably distributed themselves mostly in the South. Baylor is a frighteningly talented team and have won their first four tournament games by at least 25 points. The number one overall tournament seed, Baylor is 35-1 on the season and is riding a 27-game winning streak. They score 81 points per game on average and outscored their opponents by over 27 points per game. They make over 50% of their shots per game and their opponents only make 31%.
They are, to continue the metaphor, a giant and powerful army looming on the horizon, swallowing up everything in their path.
But they’ve probably not faced as dynamic and momentous player as Ionescu, who seems hellbent on a mission to take her team as far as possible this season.
The other final four game features UConn and Notre Dame. Notre Dame is the defending national champion. UConn is UConn, a perennial powerhouse. This final four is a beggar’s banquet for basketball fans, a murderer’s row of talented competitors. Is there a Cinderella among them? Oregon perhaps comes closest to that slippery description, but even their feet are a bit too large to fit into such dainty footwear.
The bottom line is that Oregon is in very good company. Notice how Baylor, Notre Dame and UConn are all east of the Rockies? Oregon is putting not just the PNW but the West Coast on the map for basketball of any gender.
What this means for fans is that, starting at 4pm on Friday, it’s officially time for spicy chicken wings and hop juice.