TAMPA, Fla. — There was a piece of white athletic tape wrapped around Kelly Graves’ left wrist on Friday night. Before the national semifinal game, the Oregon Ducks coach wrote a single word on it using a black Sharpie pen.
It read: “CALMNESS.”
Baylor beat Oregon 72-67 at Amalie Arena, eliminating the Ducks from the women’s Final Four. On one hand, almost nobody else played the Bears to a stalemate for 39 minutes this season. On the other, Oregon kicked this game away in the final minute, didn’t it?
Now, it gets to kick itself all offseason.
There were offensive lapses, certainly, by Oregon. There were defensive lapses, including inexplicably allowing Baylor, now 36-1, to drive off a high screen for a couple of easy late baskets. The Ducks shot 1 for 13 down the stretch, too. Yet, here Oregon was, so close in the final minute that Baylor’s magic-carpet ride wobbled in the sky for a moment.
The Bears were 81⁄2-point favorites. The Ducks were 12-to-1 to win it all. In the end, the game’s outcome felt as arbitrary as a coin flip.
“We belonged,” Graves said in the postgame news conference.
Then, a reporter asked the fifth-year Oregon coach if playing the top seed of the tournament so close, so much better than anyone lately, made losing to the Bears feel a little better. After all, Baylor had beaten its NCAA Tournament opponents by an average of more than 38 points.
Is that a consolation?
“No,” Graves said.
I’m a big believer in progress. As sports fans we measure it, and study it. I think sports programs need to sniff around success before they reach it. And no doubt, Oregon had a breakthrough this season in reaching its first Final Four.
Now, it knows what staying in one takes.
“We have a lot coming back,” Graves said. “… we’re going to be loaded next season.”
The coach said that multiple times in different ways after the game. Junior point guard Sabrina Ionescu was asked if she had thought about her plans for next season, too, and she said she hadn’t. She announced on Saturday her intent to remain at Oregon for one more season.
The Ducks coach sounded like he knows something we do not, didn’t he?
This program deserves credit. Not just for making a Final Four, but for sticking its nose into a big league fistfight, and going punch for punch with Baylor. I spoke privately with Graves for a spell after the game, and told him I thought he had a terrific season.
Not because he made a Final Four.
Not because his team looked like it belonged.
But because this was a team that responded to adversity beautifully. It found new ways to win. It was unselfish and thrilling. It looked, at least from the outside, like a family.
The Ducks left the court on Friday night knowing they could have easily advanced.
Oregon played 39 inspired minutes.
It needed 40.
Graves held his wrist up for me in the arena hallway after the game, and showed me the message he had written.
“I’ve been doing this,” he said, holding his hand up, “throughout the tournament. A different message to myself each time.
“A little self-reminder.”
During the first quarter, with Baylor surging to the lead and Ionescu struggling to find her shot, the coach looked down at his wrist.
Late in the first half, when Graves thought about calling a timeout, but instead let his team play to the end, and they captured a one-point lead.
In the third quarter, with the game tied 47-47, and then, 49-49, and then, 51-51.
There is a tendency in a first time on the big stage for a great coach to interject himself in the game. But Graves is smart enough to know he has recruited terrific players, gifted with poise. He formulated a game plan, and made adjustments, but in the end, the Ducks coach reminded himself over and over that it was those players who ultimately had to make the plays.
They didn’t make enough in the final minute.
Oregon feels like a program that can get back to the Final Four next season. Satou Sabally is becoming a dynamic threat. Ionescu is a good bet to be the National Player of the Year again next season. There are only two seniors on the roster.
There is unfinished business for the Ducks. The 2020 Women’s Final Four is slated to be held at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.
Oregon belonged this season, so what about next?
Ionescu will be back. Then, the matter of a couple of roster spots. But the bulk of the minutes played on Friday against Baylor will return next season, perhaps hungrier, and certainly more experienced than this season.
This was a special season for Oregon. One that came close to lasting another 48 hours. Instead the Ducks will get six months off to sort through the wreckage, mentally examining the scene, trying to make sense of what went wrong.
That message on Graves’ wrist? He said it has a meaning.
“It means, I trust my team.”
Note that he said it in the present tense.
I watched Oregon’s players carefully as they left the locker room on Friday night. They walked through the lower level of the arena together, side by side, wearing white Nike sweatsuits.
There was Ionescu and Sabally, and Ruthy Hebard, and the rest.
At one point, Teresa Gould, a Pac-12 senior associate commissioner, stepped over and high-fived the players as they passed.
They were not disjointed. Not scattered. The Ducks stuck together to the end.
Oregon’s program walked with purpose.
Not like it was leaving.
Like it was headed somewhere.