SPOKANE, Wash. — The elation on the faces of Maley Campbell, 9, and her little sister Makay, 6, said it all.
Mere moments after the Oregon women's basketball team left the Spokane Arena court with an 83-69 victory over Central Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen, the young daughters of UO assistant Mark Campbell had a question. Since the Ducks had won, and would be staying in town two more days for Monday's Elite Eight matchup with Notre Dame, did that mean Sunday could be a pool day?
See, the Campbells don't have a pool at home. Road trips may be business trips for dad, but the pig-tailed little girls had other things in mind.
"You're a little kid and you get to spend another day in a hotel, jumping on the bed, watching cartoons and having a pool day — what could be better?" Campbell said.
To the Campbell kids, it was clear little measured up to that. To the Oregon women, their performance Saturday afternoon against Central Michigan certainly didn't. Up 15 at halftime, the Ducks allowed the Chippewas to claw back within single digits early in the third quarter, before holding them off down the stretch. Oregon's postgame mood reflected those mixed results.
"You know we're maturing when we weren't at our best, and still beat these guys," UO coach Kelly Graves told his team in the locker room. "They were warriors; they played hard. But so did we."
A year after shocking the college basketball world — and perhaps also themselves — with an Elite Eight run, the Ducks in 2018 have reset expectations. To Campbell's kids, the pool day stemming from Saturday's win was a welcome surprise. To the Ducks, the game Monday for a trip to the Final Four was something they knew was within their abilities.
Some of the emotions stirred by Saturday's win resembled those from last year's tournament run. Some did not.
"This year I think it's known that we belong where we're at, that we deserve to be where we're at, that we worked very hard to get here the last two years," said sophomore Sabrina Ionescu, who nearly recorded her 11th triple-double with 14 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. "I think it's more where we should be, instead of jumping up for joy.
"But it's about the same thing for me. I'm excited to be here with this team, with this coaching staff. I don't take anything for granted."
The Ducks certainly didn't take the Chippewas for granted, after watching them upset Ohio State in the second round with a barrage of three-pointers. Oregon knew it couldn't let the same thing happen Saturday. It also knew Central Michigan would have few answers for UO post Ruthy Hebard. For most of Saturday afternoon, the Ducks kept both of those strategic points in mind.
An exception was the opening moments of the game, with began with four missed three-point attempts in five UO possessions. "Get the ball to Ruthy," Graves yelled from the bench after the third. Again, after the fourth: "Get the ball to Ruthy!"
On the next trip, the Ducks obliged. Hebard scored their next three field goals. Oregon never trailed again.
"We have great shooters," said Hebard, who finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds, plus a career-high six blocks. "Maybe tonight wasn't their best night. It's our job to pick it up and make baskets."
By the end of the first quarter, the Ducks had more points in the paint, 14, than the Chippewas had points at all, 12. That trend held going into halftime — Oregon led 40-25, thanks to 26 points in the paint.
But the half ended on an ominous note: Central Michigan junior Presley Hudson, who was 0-for-6 to start the game, hit a desperation three just before the buzzer.
"I hope that's not the one that gets her going," Graves told the Ducks in the halftime locker room.
His concern was prescient. Hudson opened the second half with another three-pointer from about 25 feet out. She hit another moments later, and then Cassie Breen hit two threes in four possessions. The last of those capped a 21-point outburst by the Chippewas in the opening 5:24 of the second half, to get them within 55-46.
During a timeout with 4:15 left in the third quarter, defense no doubt dominated conversation in the UO huddle. Central Michigan didn't score again until 32 seconds remained in the period. As has been the case throughout the last two postseasons, Oti Gildon's energy on the boards helped stabilize Oregon, and her putback made it 63-46 late in the third.
"I have no idea," Gildon said when asked to explain her postseason prowess. "To be honest, I just really want to help the team succeed and advance to the Elite Eight. We were able to do that. Whether it's rebounding or defense, I'm happy to do that for the team."
The Ducks finished the quarter on an 11-2 run, and pushed the lead as high as 22 in the fourth, on a Ionescu three-point play that made it 74-52. From there Central Michigan methodically chipped away at the lead; Oregon never was threatened, but the flat finish further served to fuel the Ducks' muted reaction to the win, up to and including their head coach.
"Externally I sometimes feel some added pressure, but that's my job," Graves said. "As long as (the players) don't feel it. I try to shield them from that kind of stuff. They can heap all that on me as much as they want.
"When we're 33-4, you have higher expectations. Last year we didn't know what the heck we were doing. We were playing well, but we didn't know. That kind of ignorance I thought really helped us. Well, now we've earned the right to get here, so maybe there's some different expectations that might be affecting me somehow. I don't know."
Nothing a pool day can't fix. Or better yet, a big-time performance Monday against Notre Dame.
Courtesy: UO Athletics