The question of the season in women’s basketball was always to be Oregon and who else?
With three All-Americans back, including the reigning national player of the year, Oregon had to begin as the team to beat — especially with so many other familiar contenders in transition. But would the Ducks run away with the title? What would happen if they opened the door a crack?
Saturday, Louisville barged right through it, the No. 8-ranked Cardinals beating the top-ranked Ducks 72-62 on a neutral court at the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. It was Oregon’s first loss by double digits since a regional final against Notre Dame in the 2017 NCAA tournament.
The result said plenty about the Cardinals, who had to replace four starters this season and introduced two transfers and a freshman into their rotation. It said something about the Ducks, who haven’t played as well under the weight of expectations in the early going as their headline-grabbing exhibition win against Team USA might suggest of the preseason favorites.
But more than conclusions about these two participants based on the small sample size of 40 minutes of basketball, Saturday’s result said everything about the season. The most significant result of the opening month told a dozen teams with the potential to contend that there is time. Time to get better, time to evolve. Time to try and catch what remains the nation’s best team.
As with any upset, especially those involving Louisville coach Jeff Walz, there was an element of uniqueness about Saturday. As with Louisville’s epic upset of Baylor in the 2013 NCAA tournament, some things are best enjoyed in the moment rather than mined for meaning.
So with each team playing for the third time in as many days during the holiday tournament, Louisville came up with a defensive look that Oregon couldn’t have anticipated and that few opponents likely have the personnel to replicate. For long stretches of the game, 6-foot-4 senior post player Kylee Shook operated at the top of Louisville’s defense, using her long reach to disrupt Oregon’s Minyon Moore specifically, while Dana Evans, Jazmine Jones and others worked on Sabrina Ionescu.
Walz credited LaMont Russell, the team’s video coordinator, with suggesting the approach after watching former UCF men’s basketball player Tacko Fall use his 7-foot-6 frame to similar effect against Duke a season ago in the NCAA tournament.
However much the defensive changeup was responsible, Oregon made just 6 of 34 3-point attempts against the Cardinals, including 1-of-9 shooting from behind the arc by Ionescu.
More than genius, Louisville’s attempt to disrupt Oregon on the perimeter, like any good plan, exploited a vulnerability there to be exploited. By normal standards, Oregon has shot the ball reasonably well this season — almost 50 percent from the field and 35 percent from the 3-point line entering Saturday’ game. But Oregon isn’t a typical team shooting the ball. A season ago, it was among the most efficient shooting teams in recent memory, especially from the 3-point line. But that isn’t a luxury. Its success is predicated on being an excellent shooting team.
It didn’t shoot well early in the month. It didn’t when it rescued a win at Syracuse last week. It didn’t in what was still a reasonably comfortable win against Oklahoma State on Thursday in the Paradise Jam. Maybe that’s the pressure of the No. 1 ranking and the label of prohibitive favorite. Maybe that’s just too many good shooters hitting a cold spell — that happens.
But if Oregon is merely a good shooting team — and not a historically good shooting team — then it isn’t invulnerable. Even with Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally.
Which opens the door for the rest of the country, as it did for the Cardinals when the Ducks stopped hitting shots after taking a 12-point lead in the first half of Saturday’s game. For that to mean anything, opponents have to be able to do something with the opportunity. In that sense, more than replicating Louisville’s defense, they need to be like the Cardinals.
A couple of weeks ago, Walz said his team was well behind recent vintages at the same stage of the season. Without Asia Durr among three WNBA draftees, the Cardinals started anew. To varying degrees, the same can be said of UConn, Mississippi State, South Carolina and other contenders — even reigning champion Baylor is adjusting without Kalani Brown and Chloe Jackson. All seasons involve some change in college basketball. This season is defined by it.
For every contender save Oregon, the season is going to be about how quickly they figure out what they have and how much they then improve. Louisville appears to be figuring it out quickly.
Forget her role in the defense, Shook was a presence in every aspect of the game. She finished with a team-high 18 points and 15 rebounds, stepping back and hitting a key 3-pointer in the second half.
Dana Evans didn’t shoot the ball all that much better than Ionescu, but stepping into a leading role this season, she also wasn’t hesitant to make a 3-pointer from at least four steps behind the line late in the fourth quarter to all but ensure victory.
Elizabeth Balogun, one of two high-profile transfers from Georgia Tech, didn’t need to take the most shots to influence the game with her long reach and versatility on defense.
Even freshman Noriko Konno looked comfortable playing major minutes with Jazmine Jones in early foul trouble, the recruit from Japan drawing a key charge from Ionescu in the second half.
We didn’t know if this particular Louisville team would be good enough to compete with Oregon this season. We know they were good enough Saturday. They looked like they could have a chance come March. Because make no mistake, Oregon remains the team to beat.
“We’re learning to play hard,” Walz said after the game. “We’re learning there’s more to basketball than just scoring.”
We learned something about Louisville and Oregon. We learned a lot more about what is possible for the entire country this season. In some ways, the season started Saturday.
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