TUCSON, Arizona — The No. 8 Oregon Ducks clinched their first outright Pac-12 Conference championship since 1999-2000 with a 74-61 victory over Arizona Wildcats at the McKale Center in Tucson Sunday afternoon.
The victory also extended the program record for wins for the Ducks (27-4, 16-2) to 27 and set a new conference wins record for Oregon with 16.
Ruthy Hebard led the way for the Ducks with 24 points, and senior Lexi Bando hit five three-pointers, including four in the second half, to finish with 15. Sabrina Ionescu finished with 16 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds.
The conference championship caps an incredible turnaround for the Oregon program under head coach Kelly Graves, who took over a program that had not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2005 and had not a won a conference title since 2000. The Ducks are now conference champs and a top 10 program heading into what will be their second consecutive trip to March Madness.
"This is really special," said Graves. "As coaches, we get into the business to help players realize their dreams and their potential. This team is realizing those right now. That's why I get emotional, because I'm so happy for them. To see the joy in their eyes and the reward for the hard work they put in over 18 games, that's not easy in a conference like this, and they did it. I'm really happy for them."
Bando, a senior from Eugene who was the first recruit to sign with Graves and his staff after they took over the program in 2014,
"Winning the conference championship is just such a surreal feeling," said Bando. "To see where the program has gone from my freshman year to now is just incredible and very well-deserved."
"It's really special, and it starts with our staff. We had a vision and we recruited well. We recruited the right kids. We don't have knuckleheads on our team, and that's what I'm the most proud of. They're obviously really good basketball players. They're respectful young women. They treat each other right. They treat the game right and respect the game. They're good student and do things the right way. It's refreshing to see that rewarded. I'm happy for them, and it's been a long time coming."
With the conference championship, Oregon will be the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament in Seattle next week, and they will play at 11:30 a.m. at Key Arena against the winner of the No. 8 vs No. 9 game on Thursday.
How it Happened: Arizona played Oregon tough and had an 18-10 run in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to five at the 3:30 mark, but Bando hit consecutive three-pointers to extend the lead to 11 and put the game out of reach. The Ducks dominated on the glass, as Oregon finished with a 38-25 advantage in rebounds over Arizona.
Oregon shot 60 percent in the fourth quarter, including four three-pointers, and the Ducks finished the game 11-of-22 (50%) from behind the arc.
Ionescu hit a three-pointer five seconds into the game, and the Ducks never looked back. Hebard was outstanding in the first half, contributing 13 points, including seven in the second quarter.
Bando hit a three-pointer late with three seconds remaining in the first quarter to give Oregon a 19-13 lead after one. Bando's three jump-started an 11-3 run until midway through the second quarter, as the Ducks extended their lead to as much as 11. Consecutive baskets by Maite Cazorla and Hebard gave the Ducks a 33-23 lead at halftime.
Overall, the Ducks were 5-of-10 from three-point range in the first half, with the five three's made by four different players (Bando, Cazorla, Justine Hall, and Ionescu). Oregon's defense limited the Wildcats to 35.2 percent shooting in the first half, while the Ducks owned a 19-12 rebounding advantage.
Ionescu hit consecutive three-pointers early in the third quarter, and at the six-minute mark, Hebard's free throw completed a three-point play and culminated a 13-4 run that extended Oregon's lead to 16. After an Arizona-three pointer, Cazorla scored six consecutive points, and another basket from Ionescu gave Oregon its largest lead of the game at 19.
Arizona closed out the third quarter on an 8-2 run, but the Ducks maintained a 13-point lead through three, 54-41.
Who Stood Out: Hebard went 8-of-13 from the field and finished with 24 points and nine rebounds, including an 8-of-11 from the free throw line. Bando's five three-pointers played a huge role in the win, and she finished with 15 points in 24 minutes. Ionescu finished with 16 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds.
What It Means: The win means that the Oregon Ducks are the outright PAC-12 Conference champions for the first time in 18 years (1999-2000). The Ducks will have the No. 1 seed in next week's conference tournament. Oregon also extended its school record for wins to 27 and set a new UO record for conference wins with 16.
Up Next: The Ducks begin play in the Pac-12 Tournament on Friday at Key Arena in Seattle, as No. 1-seeded Oregon with take on the winner of the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game on Thursday.