PORTLAND -- With the clock ticking with under 1:20 remaining and the Oregon Ducks clinging to a three-point lead over the Mississippi State Bulldogs with a spot in the Women's Final Four on the line, there was only one option for who should have the ball: Pac-12 player of the year and espnW first-team All-American Sabrina Ionescu.
Coming off a Ruthy Hebard screen, Ionescu first darted toward the basket, then stepped back to create space and fire over Mississippi State guard Jordan Danberry. The ultra-confident Ionescu wasn't surprised when her shot nestled through the net to push Oregon's lead to six and all but assure the Ducks' eventual 88-84 victory in the Portland Regional final.
"That was going in regardless," Ionescu said after the game. "No other way to say it. I wanted to finish this game off the right way. We've come so far. We played so hard that entire game. I knew it was my time to hit a big-time shot. Ruthy set a great screen, the spacing was great.
"At that moment in time, I didn't want it to go to overtime. I didn't want to give them any more opportunities to score. I was also pretty tired. Let me hit this and walk off to the Final Four."
That's just what Ionescu did, her key shot helping send Oregon to Tampa for the first Women's Final Four appearance in program history after the Ducks lost in the Elite Eight in each of Ionescu's first two seasons. Although he recognized the significance of getting that far once again, Oregon coach Kelly Graves had bigger goals in mind.
"We want to break through that ceiling," Graves said Saturday. "We don't want to be just an Elite Eight program, we want to be a Final Four and perhaps a national championship program."
The Ducks were backed in that effort Sunday by a crowd of more than 11,500 at the Moda Center, the vast majority of them wearing Oregon green and yellow. Between the setting and the efficient offense on both sides -- the Ducks made 13 of 26 3-pointers, Mississippi State went 8-of-13 and the teams combined for just 14 turnovers -- Graves called Sunday the best-played game he ever coached.
"It kind of reminded me of that Virginia game last night against Purdue," he said, referring to Saturday's South regional final in the men's NCAA tournament. "Two really good teams. They were making shots. It was like a heavyweight fight. We just kept getting back up off the canvas and battling some more.
"This was a great showcase for women's basketball today. I thought the crowd was amazing. That was as well-played a basketball game as I think you're going to find anywhere. I thought that is about as good as women's basketball can get."
At times during the second half, Oregon appeared poised to open up a lead. The Ducks, who took a two-point lead to the locker room, scored the first four points of the second half to draw a timeout by Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer. Early in the fourth quarter, Oregon went back up five and had an Erin Boley 3-point attempt in transition that could have pushed the margin to eight but missed. Each time, Mississippi State rallied.
Schaefer praised his team, which fell just short of a third consecutive trip to the Final Four after losing in the national championship game each of the past two seasons, for its fight.
"I just can't be prouder of my team today," Schaefer said. "You talk about competitive, tough. I just thought my team just fought tooth and nail today in a really hostile environment. Credit to the community, for the people that came out supporting women's basketball. A great crowd out there today. It's great for our game.
"I just thought my team was just phenomenal. I mean, I couldn't be prouder of them for how hard they played, how hard they fought against a really good team. I've watched a ton of film. I've not seen them make that many 3s in a while. They made shots today. You've got to take your hat off to them. When you make shots in a big game like that, you've got to tip your hat to them."
The Ducks' shot making wasn't solely driven by Ionescu. During the third quarter, it was Hebard and Satou Sabally who took center stage. Hebard, taking advantage of the attention the Bulldogs were paying to Oregon's shooters, scored 10 of her 14 points in the period after battling foul trouble in the first half. Sabally, who said Friday she was hoping for a rematch against Mississippi State after a quiet performance in the Ducks' December win in Eugene, responded with 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting and seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks.
For much of the game, however, the Bulldogs matched Oregon shot for shot. Center Teaira McCowan, who suffered through one of her worst performances of the season in Eugene, had a double-double by halftime and finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds despite the Ducks regularly sending three defenders at her. Mississippi State's guards took advantage of the open shots afforded by the attention on McCowan, with all five starters scoring double-figures.
Ultimately, the back-and-forth nature of a game in which neither team led by more than seven points and there were 11 ties and 15 lead changes just set the stage of Ionescu to take over late. She scored 14 of her 31 points (the most ever for an Oregon player in an NCAA tournament game) in the final quarter, making key shots time and again -- none bigger than her stepback 3.
"I think Sabrina made some really tough shots tonight," said Schaefer. "Obviously, she's a heck of a player. But I thought she made some really tough shots at the shot clock. That's what great players do. They're going to make shots when your team needs it. I thought she was really, really hard to guard."
Now, with Oregon headed to Tampa, defending Ionescu will be somebody else's problem. The Ducks move on to face the winner of Monday's Greensboro Regional final between Baylor and Iowa. And though reaching the Final Four is a milestone for Oregon, one they got a chance to enjoy celebrating in front of their fans, the Ducks want to keep going.
"All I've got to say is we're not done yet," Ionescu said. "Of course, we're going to be happy, but we're not going to be pleased with how far we've gotten. I think that's one of the reasons we didn't necessarily set one goal before the season. I know we got a lot of critiques for that.
"Our goals are further than one game, a Final Four, something that you can really pinpoint. I think our goals are things that we can control, and everything else will take care of itself."