EUGENE, Ore. — There were nearly three times as many people inside Matthew Knight Arena to watch Oregon host Stanford on Thursday as showed up when the Cardinal came to town four seasons ago.
Stanford hasn’t changed much in that time, Final Four contenders then and now. So, no, It wasn’t a visit from Pac-12 royalty that filled the stands. Those 12,218 voices told the story of Sabrina Ionescu’s time in town and roared with approval first as she became the program’s all-time leading scorer, then as she scored a new career high and finally as No. 6 Oregon beat No. 3 Stanford 87-55.
Ionescu made sure a frustrating first quarter didn’t matter — the Cardinal led the Ducks 17-13 after the first 10 minutes — by playing one of the best games on a résumé full of contenders. Ionescu was magnificent, totaling 37 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.
Oregon lost to Louisville on a neutral court in November and lost its No. 1 ranking. It lost a week ago at unranked Arizona State and lost its chance to reclaim the top spot in the polls.
On this court, in this arena where fans flocked to watch it beat Team USA to begin the season, the Ducks didn’t play flawless basketball. They showed some of the same flaws, in fact, that raise at least questions about their title hopes in such a crowded field of contenders.
So maybe they didn’t earn the No. 1 ranking back in one night. But they made darned sure didn’t lose. They haven’t lost many in the Ionescu era.
Led as almost always by its senior star, Oregon recorded its first win this season against a top-10 opponent.
Ionescu became the first player in 20 seasons to reach 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists against a top-five opponent. She had 29 points in the first three quarters, most when Oregon desperately needed them,
But that familiar story can’t overshadow how much the Ducks worked for this win.
A year ago, Oregon beat Stanford by 40 points in the regular season. Everything worked that day in Palo Alto. Little went right early in Thursday’s game.
Sabrina Ionescu records a career high after hitting a jump shot to get up to 37 points for the game.
Erin Boley missed a 3-pointer on Oregon’s opening possession. Ionescu missed one of her own a couple of minutes later. Satou Sabally did the same soon after that. Oregon made 12-of-16 3-point attempts when it routed Stanford in the regular season a year ago. The Ducks missed their first seven 3-point attempts against the Cardinal on Thursday.
Their 13 first-quarter points were their lowest total in an opening period this season, and marked the second game in a row they trailed after the first quarter.
The 3-point misses were the most frustrating and the most telling. Oregon entered the game shooting 36 percent from the 3-point line — good by most measures but far off the 41.5 pace it set a season ago. The shooters are largely the same, but whether it’s Boley, Ionescu, Sabally or someone else, the shots just haven’t fallen with the same regularity this season.
Without the 3-pointer, Oregon is a vulnerable team offensively, especially against Louisville, Stanford and the teams they want to be playing in New Orleans in April. There isn’t as much room for Ionescu to operate in off the dribble if her kick-out passes to shooters don’t punish opponents quite as often. There isn’t as much room for Hebard to go to work on the block.
That has to come back for the Ducks to be the best team in the land. That’s what makes them better than everyone else.
Against Louisville and Arizona State (not to mention a few close wins), they struggled for answers. Thursday they improvised.
Pushing the ball up court midway through the third quarter, Moore could have kicked to Sabally on the wing for an open 3-pointer. She chose instead to keep driving to the basket, absorbing the contact when fouled and earning two points the hard way from the free throw line.
Minutes later, rather than showing the range that makes her such a brilliant WNBA prospect, Sabally fought for an offensive rebound on an Ionescu heave as the shot clock expired, drew the foul as she made the putback and finished a 3-point play from the free throw line.
The Ducks finished with a pedestrian eight 3-pointers, everyone but Ionescu combining to make just 3-of-12 attempts. But they had more rebounds, fewer turnovers and more free throw attempts than Stanford.
And they had Ionescu, who saluted everyone in attendance after hitting a step-back jumper for her final points and exiting the game in the final minutes.
On this night that was enough to beat a heck of a team by 32 points.