'Standard-bearer' vs. 'newcomer': No. 3 Oregon, No. 4 UConn could be Final Four preview

Sabrina Ionescu will get another shot at beating Geno Auriemma and UConn. (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

It’s another monumental Monday in women’s basketball with a look at what could end up being a Final Four matchup.

No. 3 Oregon will take on No. 4 Connecticut at Gampel Pavillion with tip-off at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2 in a game that holds significance for its symbolism and NCAA tournament seeding. The NCAA will reveal later Monday its first projection of the top 16 teams.

It will also pit the traditional powerhouse of UConn against the new darlings of the game in Oregon.

“They’re the standard to which every program is judged,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves said, via The Oregonian. "They’re the standard-bearer of our sport. We’re still the newcomer; we haven’t proven anything yet. We’ve gotten to the precipice, but we haven’t been able to get over.”

Oregon (19-2, 9-1 Pac-12) is 0-3 all-time versus Connecticut (19-1, 9-0 AAC) with the last coming in the 2017 Elite Eight in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when the current seniors were freshmen. That three years feels like a lifetime ago.

“There’s a reason why everybody picked them to be a national championship-type team when the season started. And there’s nothing that I’ve seen that leads me to think otherwise,” Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said.

Oregon’s prolific offense fueled by Ionescu

Senior Sabrina Ionescu garners a lot of attention for the Ducks — and rightfully so with an NCAA record-extending 23rd triple-double over the weekend — but she has star power alongside her in classmate Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally.

They average a combined 50.4 points per game of the team’s nation-leading 86.8 and shoot 55.2 percent, slightly better than the team average of 50.5.

“You can’t say, ‘Well, if we do this, they won’t score.’ That’s really not true,” Auriemma said, via the Hartford Courant. “The reason why they don’t score is they miss shots. So it’s hard to take away aspects of their game, because they’ve got a talented bunch, and they’re pretty deep.”

Ionescu leads the way at 17.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG and a nation-leading 8.6 APG. Hebard is a 66.5 percent shooter averaging 16.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. Sabally has turned up her game in the past seven outings, averaging 20 points and 7.7 rebounds in that span while getting to the free throw line more. She’s 46 of 51 there.

In the loss against Louisville, Oregon shot 34.2 percent (25 of 73) overall and 17.1 percent from 3-point range, both season lows, and scored fewer than 70 points. They only other time they scored so little was a loss to Arizona State. They’ve lost two of the four games in which they’ve shot worse than 30 percent from deep.

UConn can’t afford to go cold

The Huskies show glimpses that they could be the best team in the nation, then go dormant for a quarter or more. As senior guard Crystal Dangerfield (15.7 PPG) put it to UConn’s The Daily Campus:

“We have days where we show signs of being a really great team, probably the best team in the country, and then we have days where it’s like, ‘How are we even at Connecticut?’”

Yet they are still Connecticut, the powerhouse program that you have to beat to be the best. Graves told The Oregonian he wants the team not only to be relevant now, but in the coming years as the Ducks continue to bring in top recruits to become what UConn is.

It will take an entire team effort for UConn, from tip to horn, to defeat this Oregon team. Junior forward Megan Walker averages a team-high 19.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. She’s made a third of her points on 43.9 percent shooting from 3-point range in an improved campaign the Huskies needed with the loss of so many points to graduation last spring.

Christyn Williams (15.8 PPG) completes the top three. Freshman Anna Makurat had a strong night last Monday against Team USA (10 points, four rebounds, three assists) and will need to find that again tonight. Olivia Nelson-Ododa also can’t go quiet, as she has in other key spots this year, and Aubrey Griffin will need a big game.

“It gives us a sense that anybody at any time can step up and do bigger things than what they’re used to doing,” Dangerfield said, via the Courant, of depth. “But tomorrow night I think it’s going to take everybody that steps on the floor to do their job and be their best self.”

The Huskies average 78.7 points per game, 15th in the NCAA. Their last loss on campus at Gampel was Jan. 5, 2013, against then No. 5 Notre Dame. (No. 2 Baylor ended the Huskies home winning streak earlier this season at the XL Center in Hartford.) The team last hosted a higher seed — Oregon passed them last week in the poll and held in the one released earlier Monday — when they were ranked third and then-No. 2 Baylor came to town on Nov. 17, 2016. UConn won by 11 and is 66-32 all-time against top-five teams, per The Oregonian.

The game is also UConn’s annual Play4Kay Pink Game and the teams will honor breast cancer survivors with an online auction following to benefit the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.

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