Prior to their NCAA Tournament, the Oregon Ducks’ 2021-22 season had been defined by inconsistency.
At first, that was understandable with several key players struggling with injuries early in the season, but even once the Ducks recovered in January, they never fully got into the juggernaut some thought had the potential to become. .
Such irregularity came back to bite them when it mattered most, as No. 5 seed Oregon (20-12) suffered its first outing of the NCAA Tournament under Kelly Graves at the hands of the lead. seeded No. 12, Belmont (23-7), 73-70. Saturday in double overtime in Knoxville, Tenn.
After the game, Graves took responsibility for the team not putting everything together and hitting “the right triggers.” But as Oregon still searches for an identity in the post-Sabrina Ionescu era, he also said he felt something was missing among his players.
“I think sometimes our players have acted and played in an authoritative way,” Graves said. “I mean, we’ve had a great run. We’ve reached at least the Sweet 16 every year since 2017. a long time. This group hasn’t won anything. We haven’t won a Pac-12 championship. We haven’t won in the NCAA Tournament, with great depth.
The Ducks qualified for the Elite Eight in 2017, Ionescu’s first year, as well as in 2018 before making the program’s first Final Four in 2019. The team was a national title contender in 2020 before the Cancellation of NCAA Tournament Amid COVID-19 Pandemic.
After Ionescu and fellow stars Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard left for the WNBA this offseason, Oregon fell to Louisville in the 2021 Sweet 16. Only two players remain on the 2019-20 team, and all two in red shirts that year: Nyara Sabally and Sedona Prince.
Things got off to a rocky start this season when Nyara, freshman Te-Hina Paopao and USC transfer Endyia Rogers all suffered injuries that kept them out of the majority of non-conference teams in Oregon. who qualified for the national championship game last season, and traditional UConn power in the space of three days.
But the signs of a potential early exit from the NCAA tournament have been there ever since, especially since Oregon has struggled in the area Kelly Graves’ teams have generally understood: offense (see: consecutive performances below 50 points in early February). The Ducks lost five of their last 10 regular season games before losing to Utah in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals.
In Knoxville, Oregon trailed by six midway through the fourth and managed to fight back and force overtime with a Paopao 3. But once the Ducks were up six early in the first overtime and from four at the start of the second extra frame, they could Oregon went scoreless in the final two minutes of the game, which was capped by a desperation 3-point attempt from Prince at the final buzzer that didn’t fall.
“I think we have to come back and work harder and be harder,” Graves said. “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. No matter. We need you.” I just think it happens, and I think it’s a state of mind. I think we need to come back and hungrier because we’re not the hunted anymore. We hunt like everyone else. world.
Nyara did his part Saturday with a career-high 31 points (12 for 24 shooting), 12 rebounds and 7 blocks, while sophomore Te-Hina Paopao added 18, but no other Oregon player did. had more than 9. Oregon only made four. 3 from Belmont’s 12 and committed 17 turnovers from Belmont’s dozen.
“We lack that alpha, and often if it comes from the coach, that leadership, then we have issues,” Graves said. “We have a leadership capacity and leadership shows up from time to time, but it’s consistency.
“If I had to sum up the whole season in one word, it would be ‘inconsistencies’. Daily effort, game production, leadership, coaching. I didn’t do a great job. I was also inconsistent. Same with my staff .”
For Oregon to turn things around and have a deeper tournament next season, they won’t need to start from scratch. Although Nyara is eligible for the WNBA Draft, the rest of his starters can return, including Prince, who said she ‘I’ll be back in Eugene.
Graves also hosts ESPN’s second recruiting class.
“We just have to somehow nurture that, recruit that, empower that,” Graves said. “We just have to do a better job.”