Oregon showed a level of offensive cohesiveness and firepower against a quality opponent it hasn’t displayed since Sabrina Ionescu ruled Matthew Knight Arena, but couldn’t finish it off.
Te-Hina Paopao scored 18 points and Endyia Rogers had 10, but each of UO’s experienced guards missed potential game-tying three-pointers in the final 2:45 and the No. 8 Tar Heels were able to hang on for an 85-79 win over the No. 18 Ducks in the opening game of the PKI Thursday afternoon at the Chiles Center.
But the chemistry and passion displayed on the court, from the bench and even from stoic coach Kelly Graves was at a level not seen since 2019-20.
“I was passionate because I thought at times tonight we played really good basketball,” Graves said. “There were times tonight we played as good as I’ve ever had a team play here at the University of Oregon. We just didn’t sustain it for 40 minutes unfortunately, we had some lulls.
“But they play hard, they execute. … I am having a lot more fun than I think I’ve ever had, at least for a while anyway, with this team.”
Oregon (4-1) opened on a 7-0 run and North Carolina responded with the next eight. The Ducks led the rest of the first half though as Jennah Isai led an effort to attack the rim early and scored seven of her 15 points in the first quarter to give UO a 23-20 lead after one. Rogers had seven points and three rebounds in the second quarter, to make it 44-39 at halftime.
The Ducks scored the first six to open the second half, with the last coming on a fast break sprung by Paopao and Chance Gray found an open Grace VanSlooten (17 points, 11 rebounds) for a layup that got the UO bench fired up. Graves, who famously didn’t so much as flinch when Ionescu hit the three-pointer in the Elite Eight agaisnt Mississippi State to send Oregon to the 2019 Women’s Final Four, ran several steps up the sideline and fist pumped into the air.
“My favorite play in basketball is a great pass and usually a great pass is a great combination of passes and they did that,” Graves said. “I got pretty excited. I thought we were going to be able to maintain that and finish it, we didn’t.”
The Tar Heels (5-0), which missed their first nine attempts of the half, went on an 8-0 run and closed the quarter outscoring the Ducks 22-5 to take a 56-55 lead in the final frame.
Oregon opened the fourth on an 11-2 run, then UNC answered with a 14-3 run with 10 from Eva Hodgson, who scored 14 of her 21 points in the fourth. She capped the run with a go-ahead four-point play in front of the Tar Heels bench and they never relinquished the lead again.
“My coach and my teammates have been telling me the year-and-a-half that I’ve been here just to shoot the ball and let it fly,” Hodgson said. “Having their confidence in me, I knew towards the end of the game we needed something that would change the stride of the game and the pace and the energy. When I caught it and I didn’t even think twice about it and let it fly, the fact that it was an and-one made it a lot sweeter and right in front of the bench so everyone could celebrate.”
With UNC leading 76-73, Rogers missed a three with 2:14 to go. One-hundred seconds later, Paopao missed a three from the right wing that also could’ve tied it.
“We let (Hodgson) shake loose a couple of times,” Graves said. “You can’t go over a screen on her. She got loose in transition one time. Those are mistakes you can’t make that time of game and let’s face it, she made them. We had some pretty good looks on our end too and didn’t. There’s your difference.”
Oregon shot over 50% from the field and won the rebounding battle (42-35) but its 18 turnovers led to 17 points for North Carolina. Rogers committed a career-high eight turnovers due in large part to how UNC varied its ball screen defense and it aggravated the fourth-year junior, who had six rebounds and five assists.
Alyssa Ustby had 19 points and eight rebounds and Deja Kelly had 17 points, seven assists and four rebounds for the Tar Heels, who advance to face No. 5 Iowa State (5-0) in the final at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Moda Center.
Graves said the locker room had the “right tone” after a close but difficult loss, something that had been problematic the past two seasons for Oregon, which faces Michigan State (6-1) at 10 a.m. Sunday at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
“I think we’ve got the right mentality, we’ve got the right players,” Graves said. “I’m interested now to see how we respond to it on Sunday. That’ll be telling.”