Prior to their NCAA tournament run, the Oregon Ducks’ 2021-22 season had been defined by inconsistency.
At first, it was understandable with multiple key players suffering early-season injuries. But even once the Ducks got healthy in January, they never fully got going into the juggernaut some believed they 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 earliest NCAA tournament exit under Kelly Graves at the hands of No. 12 seed Belmont (23-7), 73-70 on Saturday in double overtime in Knoxville, Tenn.
After the game, Graves took responsibility for the team failing to put everything together and for not pulling “the right triggers.” But as Oregon still searches for an identity in the post-Sabrina Ionescu era, he also said he feels there’s something missing among his players.
“I think at times our players have acted and performed entitled,” Graves said. “I mean, we have had a nice run. We made it at least to the Sweet 16 every year since 2017. First first-round exit in 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 advanced to the Elite Eight in 2017, Ionescu’s freshman 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 prior to the cancellation of the NCAA tournament amid the COVID- 19 pandemic.
Once Ionescu and fellow stars Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard left for the WNBA that offseason, Oregon fell to Louisville in the 2021 Sweet 16. Only two players remain from the 2019-20 squad, and both redshirted that year: Nyara Sabally and Sedona Prince.
Things started rocky this season when Nyara, freshman Te-Hina Paopao and USC transfer Endyia Rogers all went down with injuries that kept them out of the majority of Oregon’s nonconference slate. Upon their return, Oregon showed its potential when the Ducks took down Arizona, which advanced to the national championship game last season, and traditional power UConn in a span of three days.
But the signs of a potential early exit in the NCAA tournament have been there ever since, especially as Oregon struggled in the area Kelly Graves teams usually have figured out: offense (see: consecutive sub-50-point performances in early February). The Ducks dropped five of their final 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 thanks to a Paopao 3. But once the Ducks ran ahead by six early in the first overtime and by four early in the second extra frame, they couldn ‘t maintain a late lead. Oregon went scoreless in the final two minutes of the game, which were capped with a Prince desperation 3-point attempt at the final buzzer that did not fall.
“I think we’ve got to come back and work harder and be tougher,” Graves said. “I think at times 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 banged up. Doesn’t matter. We need you.’ I just think that happens, and I think it’s a mindset. I think we’ve got to come back and hungrier because we’re no longer the hunted. We’re hunting like everybody else.”
Nyara did her 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 had more than 9. Oregon made just four 3s compared with Belmont’s 12, and committed 17 turnovers compared with Belmont’s dozen.
“We’re missing that alpha, and oftentimes if it comes from the coach, that leadership, then we’re in trouble,” Graves said. “We have leadership capability and leadership shows up from time to time, but it’s the consistency.
“If I had to kind of boil the whole season down into one word, it’s ‘inconsistencies.’ Daily effort, game production, leadership, coaching. I didn’t do a great job. I was inconsistent, as well. Same with my staff.”
For Oregon to turn things around and have a deeper tournament run next season, it won’t need to start from scratch. While Nyara is eligible for the WNBA draft, the rest of its starters can return, including Prince, who has said she’ll be back in Eugene.
Graves has ESPN’s second-ranked recruiting class incoming too.
“We’ve just got to somehow either nurture that, recruit that, empower that,” Graves said. “We’ve just got to do a better job.”