5 years ago, during my senior year at the University of Oregon, I covered the Oregon women’s basketball team. It was a new challenge for me as a young sportswriter because the storylines were the same every single night. The Ducks would show up, run an offense at a suicide pace that was simply known as “The System” and then lose badly.
They repeated this routine 27 times that season, finishing with just four wins on the year. It took them until December 16 to win their first game, and they would end the year losing 11 of their final 12 games. Head coach Paul Westhead would stick around for one more year, but that was it.
Fast forward to Sunday night. Head coach Kelly Graves, now in his fourth year leading the Ducks, stands atop a ladder at KeyArena in Seattle with a pair of scissors, cutting down the net after Oregon beat Stanford 77-57 for their first Pac-12 tournament title in program history.
It’s even more impressive when you look at Oregon’s season as a whole. This wasn’t a cinderella story where a low-ranked seed recovered from a bad season and went on a magical tournament run. Oh no. These ladies dominated the country from day one, on their way to a 30-4 record. Let that sink in for a moment. 5 years removed from a 4-win season, the Ducks are in the midst of a run in where they will finish with no more than five losses.
The first step towards this miracle comeback came when the Ducks finally cut ties with Paul Westhead back in 2014. During his tenure with the Ducks, Westhead went 65-90 with a 27-64 record in conference play. Much of the problem was rooted in “The System” which was a run-and-gun offense that his girls could not run well enough to be effective. It wasn’t even organized chaos, it was just chaos, and it was ugly to watch.
The Ducks needed a rebuild, and they had just the guy in mind for the project. Enter Kelly Graves, who had been at Gonzaga for 14 years before coming to Oregon. While at Gonzaga, Graves took the Bulldogs from a last-place finish all the way to the Elite Eight. That process took about a decade to get to. At Oregon, Graves accomplished the same exact feat in less than half the time. Last year, the Ducks marched all the way to the Elite Eight before falling to the UConn Huskies, also known as women’s basketball’s permanent version of the 1997 Chicago Bulls.
Graves has taken the Ducks from one of the worst programs in the country to one of the best, thanks in large part to bringing in the right players, including Sabrina Ionescu, who was the national high school player of the year and a part of Oregon’s No. 3 recruiting class. On Sunday, Ionescu put on a show, dropping 36 points as the Ducks took down the Cardinal to finally cut down the nets.
Historically, Stanford has dominated the Ducks, beating them six straight times and winning 54 of their last 63 meetings. But not this night. This night, finally, belonged to Graves, Ionescu, and the rest of the Ducks.
Now, it’s time to dance.