SPOKANE, Wash. — The second half of Monday's Spokane Regional final began with second-seeded Oregon leading top seed Notre Dame by six points, a defensive stop by the Ducks and then, on the other end, a bread-and-butter look: senior Lexi Bando, the NCAA's active career leader in three-point shooting, open in her honey hole, the corner at the UO end.
Bando's shot missed. The Ducks got another open look on their next possession, for Satou Sabally on the wing, and she missed as well. Then, for Notre Dame, first one, then two, then three offensive rebounds on the same trip, ending in the first basket of the second half.
Little did anybody know then, the second-half tone had been set. The Ducks couldn't knock down open looks. The Irish couldn't be stopped on the offensive glass. And Oregon's season ended in the Elite Eight for the second year in a row, with an 84-74 loss Monday before 5,226 fans in Spokane Arena.
A season that included a school-record 33 wins, a Pac-12 Conference regular-season title and — for the first time — a conference tournament title ended a game short of the Final Four for the Ducks. Notre Dame, meanwhile, moved on to its eighth all-time Final Four, and its sixth in the last eight years.
"You saw a team that was still trying to climb the mountain and get where we've never been before, and a team that knew how to get there," UO coach Kelly Graves said. "They wanted it, and it shows in the rebound stats."
Notre Dame ended up with a 51-29 advantage on the boards, including 19 on the offensive end that resulted in 26 second-chance points. The Ducks (33-5) might have been able to counter that with their typically accurate three-point shooting — they led the nation at 40.4 percent entering the night — but they went just 4-of-15 for the game, including 1-of-11 after halftime.
"We just didn't make the same shots we were making earlier in the game," Graves said. "Maybe they were contested a little more, but normally when we get those shooters open like they were, that's like a layup for some of them. Just didn't make them."
A year after surprising the nation by reaching the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed, the Ducks felt they belonged among the nation's elite this season, and proved it all year. And they looked poised to take the next step as a program at halftime Monday, using an uptempo attack to stress Notre Dame's injury ravaged rotation and take a 46-40 lead after the second quarter.
But Oregon couldn't get enough stops, or defensive rebounds, to get out and run in the second half. Notre Dame wasn't as taxed by the tempo, and it showed on the offensive glass.
"We knew they were going to come out and punch us, and we just had to be able to punch back," UO sophomore Sabrina Ionescu said. "And we didn't."
Ionescu did what she could, leading the Ducks with 26 points on the same day she was named the program's first-ever Associated Press first-team all-American. And her fellow all-American, honorable mention selection Ruthy Hebard, notched a double-double with her first rebound of the second half.
But that 10th rebound of the game by Hebard, to go along with 17 points, also was her last of the game. Notre Dame ended up with a 34-13 edge on the glass in the second half. And for all the Ducks accomplished this season, they were left to head back to Eugene feeling the sting of coming up a game short of the Final Four.
"I'll definitely remember this game," Ionescu said, when asked how she'll consider all they accomplished this season. "… We're going to learn from this, we're going to get better and we're going to come back hunting the Final Four next year."
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