The UConn Huskies and Oregon Ducks have met just three times in women’s college basketball, and only once when Kelly Graves was the Ducks’ coach. That was in the 2017 Elite Eight. Sabrina Ionescu was then a freshman, leading an upstart and 10th-seeded Ducks team that pulled off three consecutive upsets — over the Nos. 7, 2 and 3 seeds — before falling by 38 points to the top-seeded Huskies.
Oregon has since climbed far and fast, including the program’s first Final Four last season. Can the Ducks go into Gampel Pavilion — one of the toughest places for opponents to win over the past 25 years — and come away with Oregon’s first victory against UConn?
We’ll find out on Big Monday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App). In the meantime, ESPN.com reporters Mechelle Voepel, Graham Hays and Charlie Creme break down the top-10 showdown.
1. Oregon moved ahead of UConn in the Top 25. Are the No. 3 Ducks really the favorite heading into Big Monday against the No. 4 Huskies?
Graham Hays: The location of the game makes it difficult to say Oregon is the favorite, but the Ducks are more suited to the role at the moment. UConn coach Geno Auriemma explained it well after last week’s win against Tennessee, saying his team needed a win like that. “These guys aren’t sure yet they can beat good teams,” he said. “Everybody thinks, ‘Well, it’s Connecticut.’ These guys are unsure.”
This group of Ducks has won more of these games than this group of Huskies (coaching staffs aside). Ruthy Hebard, Ionescu and Satou Sabally have pulled off three wins against top-10 teams in the past two weeks. The question for this game is how quickly UConn’s recent experiences — the loss against Baylor, the win against Tennessee and the competitive loss against Team USA — continue to hone Megan Walker, Christyn Williams and the rest into something more than they were in November or December. This game feels like another step on that climb to where Oregon already stands.
Junior forward Megan Walker leads UConn in scoring (19.7 PPG) and rebounding (9.0 RPG). AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.
Mechelle Voepel: In some ways, this reminds me of Duke’s journey 20 years ago. The Blue Devils made their first Final Four in 1999, beating one superpower, Tennessee, along the way. And Duke had become a top team in its conference. But the question remained: Could the Blue Devils defeat UConn? Duke did — before a full house in Hartford, Connecticut — in 2004 on a last-second shot.
The Blue Devils followed that in 2006 with an Elite Eight victory in overtime in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Coach Gail Goestenkors left Duke after the 2007 season, and the Blue Devils haven’t come close to beating UConn since, with nine consecutive losses. But that period from 1999 to 2007 when Duke was striving to be one of the nation’s elite teams, beating UConn — especially on the Huskies’ turf — was part of the requirement. The Ducks are there now: with their Final Four trip last spring, being the top team in a very strong conference, and needing a big victory on the other side of the country to take that last step to say, “Yeah, we’re who you think we are.”
But the Huskies might feel as if they have as much to prove about themselves as the Ducks. They hear regularly from Auriemma that they are a group that hasn’t done much. There are no NCAA champions on the floor now for UConn. The Huskies had high-profile games in January against Baylor, Tennessee and the U.S. national team, and will have two more in February against Oregon and at South Carolina (Feb. 10). UConn finishes with American Athletic Conference games and somewhat goes off the national radar — unless they somehow get upset. So this is a statement game for UConn, too — not as a program, but for this year’s team. UConn alum Sue Bird — after facing the Huskies on Monday with Team USA — said maybe they’ll get fired up being considered an underdog against the Ducks.
Charlie Creme: Given the way the Ducks have played most recently with the Civil War sweep and the blowout of Stanford, they are the better team right now. Home court counts, though, so I’m not sure if Oregon is unequivocally the favorite in this game. It also matters that the Ducks will have played just two days earlier in Boulder, Colorado, and will be playing their third game in five days by Monday night. The Huskies will play at home Thursday and have three days off before Oregon gets to Storrs. So let’s give the Ducks the slight advantage because they have more depth and the best player in the country in Ionescu, who often rises to the occasion in these big spotlight games, while also keeping in mind that the scheduling advantages are all with the Huskies.
2. Satou Sabally, Oregon’s 6-foot-4 junior forward, causes matchup problems against virtually every team the Ducks play. How does UConn defend her?
Satou Sabally (16.5 PPG, 7.1 RPG) is one of the most multidimensional players in the country and creates mismatches no matter the opponent. Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Graham Hays: It’s going to be fascinating to see how much Auriemma and UConn concern themselves with Sabally’s range. There aren’t many players in the country, if any, who can deny her looks on the perimeter and also hope to stick with her when she drives or sets up in the high post. But the 3-pointers haven’t fallen at nearly the rate they did a season ago. I don’t think anyone is foolish enough to simply dare Sabally to shoot, but could the Huskies use some combination of Megan Walker, Aubrey Griffin and others to focus on taking away her touches in the paint and keep her from attacking the basket? That’s how Sabally punished Oregon State and Stanford at times on cold 3-point shooting days.
Voepel: Graham mentioned Griffin, and the freshman’s profile has been rising of late. But another way to look at trying to limit Sabally is to focus on the so-called “head of the snake” in Ionescu.
“She’s different, because she plays the game more old school,” Auriemma said. “She plays with guile; she tries to bait you into one thing so she can do something else. She knows how to use her body to draw fouls. It’s old-school basketball instead of just flash-and-dash, and I really admire that about her.”
But he’ll also relish the challenge of trying to disrupt Ionescu with some of the quickness the Huskies have on the perimeter, which could then have a domino effect on the rest of the Ducks. That said, Ionescu is known for finding a way to take her game up another level for the biggest contests.
Creme: If we are talking straight man-to-man, Walker would likely be the defender matched up with Sabally. If Walker gets into foul trouble, UConn’s chances in the game plummet.
But it’s doubtful the Huskies’ defense will be that straightforward. If Sabally is making perimeter shots (she shoots 26.5 percent from 3-point range), almost no defense matters. The key is keeping her from getting many clean looks in the lane (she shoots 60.6 percent from 2-point territory). One stat to keep an eye on: Sabally averages 4.5 made free throws per game, but no team in the country fouls less frequently than UConn.
3. What other X factors will impact Monday’s game?
Olivia Nelson-Ododa, a 6-foot-5 sophomore post, has started all 20 games for UConn. She averages 11 points and 8.9 rebounds. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Voepel: Auriemma has said bluntly that the Huskies are a completely different team when 6-foot-5 sophomore post player Olivia Nelson-Ododa is playing well. She has size for a team that otherwise doesn’t have much of that, and she has the ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor.
But consistency has been an issue, and Auriemma hasn’t hesitated to bench her if she’s not playing as well as he thinks she’s capable. Facing Oregon’s interior game is going to be a challenge for Nelson-Ododa, but one that could really help her confidence if she plays well.
Creme: How Graves elects to use Minyon Moore and what her role is in the game will be something I’m watching. Moore gives the Ducks more speed, on-ball defense and someone to take the ball-handling pressure off Ionescu. But Moore’s deficiencies as a 3-point shooter (only 11 made 3s all season and a 32.4 3-point field goal percentage) can allow opposing coaches to use her defender to clog the lane. So, for example, Auriemma could use Crystal Dangerfield to help more on a Sabally or Hebard post-up, or on an Ionescu drive, rather than tightly defending Moore on the perimeter.
The Oregon offense often looked more dangerous and smooth over the weekend against Oregon State with Taylor Chavez and/or Jaz Shelley on the court instead of Moore. The punch and counterpunch with lineups and personnel usage between the two coaches will be intriguing.
Hays: When is the last time a UConn team this late in the season played an opponent that gets to the free throw line more often, shoots a better percentage from the free throw line, records assists on a higher percentage of field goals and has a better assist-to-turnover ratio? Those are areas the Huskies usually dominate, their precision as much a part of their formula for success over the year as their intensity. And while they’re still good in all of those things, they haven’t been as good as Oregon. Especially when it comes to the free throw numbers, with Oregon a team that doesn’t foul much and doesn’t have the depth to foul much, can UConn get back to its old habits?
4. How will the results of Oregon-UConn impact Bracketology?
Creme: This is a big game in the weekly push-and-pull for No. 1 seeds. Through Thursday’s games, Oregon is fourth overall and UConn fifth on the S-curve, so Monday’s winner is a No. 1 seed and the loser will be on the 2-line.
Where each team lands and where they are subsequently placed in the bracket is where things get interesting. If the Huskies win, they are a No. 1 seed, but likely in the Portland Regional, with Oregon as the accompanying No. 2. If the Ducks win on Monday, they will be the No. 1 in Portland and put a firm grip on an ultimate No. 1 seed. As a No. 2 seed, UConn would get placed closer to home in either the Fort Wayne or Greenville regions.
Hays: I’m interested in what an Oregon loss would mean for the Pac-12, which I still believe is the best conference this season. That said, if Oregon loses Monday, it seems like the Pac-12 won’t control its own destiny when it comes to getting at least one No. 1 seed. Baylor, UConn, Louisville or South Carolina would have to slip up. There’s still a lot of season left, so odds are at least one of them will open that door, but it’s still a measure of the toll taken by the week-to-week grind in the Pac-12.
Voepel: It was a bit of a surprise last year when UConn ended up as a No. 2 seed, but it didn’t thwart the Huskies from making a 12th consecutive Final Four appearance. What’s different this year, of course, is that UConn will have to leave the Northeast no matter what for a potential regional, so placement, not seed, might be a much bigger factor for the Huskies.
Who will win?
Voepel: Oregon is ready to break through against the Huskies, mostly because the Ducks’ offense is good enough to be too much for UConn to stop. Oregon 79, UConn 71.
Hays: Oregon will be playing its third road game in five days and its fourth top-10 opponent in a little more than two weeks. UConn will be far more rested. And this has been a season in which the top contenders take turns making their case. UConn 72, Oregon 64.
Creme: Ionescu will be her typically great self, but Oregon’s depth of options will make the difference. Chavez and Hebard will make the big buckets late, and Oregon ultimately prevails in a game that comes down to the final possession. Oregon 70, UConn 68.