There’s a lot of “what if?” conjecture happening in college basketball after the NCAA canceled the men’s and women’s tournaments because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2019-20 season will forever remain frozen in time, with no conclusive champion, and no memories made during March Madness. It’s a harsh reality for the players, especially those at the end of their careers, who didn’t have the national platform to showcase their talents and add a final chapter to their legacies. The “what if” scenarios are particularly painful when considering Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu’s career. What if she hadn’t returned to Oregon for her senior season? She may have been the no. 1 pick in last year’s WNBA draft, and in the running for Rookie of the Year as a member of the Las Vegas Aces. When Ionescu decided to return to college for her senior season, she did so to add to her record-breaking career and lead the Ducks to a national championship. She accomplished the former; we’ll never know if she would have achieved the latter.
Oregon returned its core group from last season’s Final Four team, its first in school history. This season, Ionescu was joined by fellow senior (and lethal pick-and-roll partner) Ruthy Hebard, and Satou Sabally, who had already decided to forfeit her senior year and declare for the 2020 WNBA draft. The Ducks were 31-2 this season and poised for a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. They expected to finish their season with an exclamation point at the Final Four in New Orleans. Now, we’re left with only question marks.
Even without one last tournament run, Ionescu finished her career as one of the greatest college basketball players ever. Period. The 5-foot-11 guard is a flat-out scorer (a “walking bucket,” as the kids say). Give her an inch, and she’ll shoot a 3 in your eye. Crowd her too much, and she’ll blow right by you for a layup. Or maybe she’ll step back and drill a jumper. It depends on how she’s feeling at the moment. No matter how you look at it, Ionescu can ball. She finished her four-year stint at Oregon with 2,562 points, 1,040 rebounds, and 1,091 assists, and became the first Division I NCAA player—male or female—with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists. She recorded her 26th career triple-double in Oregon’s Pac-12 tournament —the previous NCAA record was 12. She didn’t do it alone. How else could she pass Gary Payton as the Pac-12’s all-time assist leader? The Lady Ducks averaged 86 points per game, best in the NCAA. They served UConn its second loss of the season with an 18-point victory, swept Oregon State, and beat five nationally ranked squads on their way to a conference title—hell, they even beat Team USA during its college exhibition tour.
Ionescu chose Orgeon after turning down opportunities at several other women’s basketball powerhouses and became the highest-rated high school recruit to commit to the program at the time. And she committed late—really late; she didn’t sign her letter of intent during the November or April signing periods, and instead showed up without fanfare days before summer semester began and told head coach Kelly Graves in person that she’d be joining the team. Four years later, Ionescu has earned almost all of the accolades available to her: Wooden Award winner, Wade Trophy winner, two-time Nancy Lieberman Award winner, two-time Pac-12 tournament champion, three-time Pac-12 Player of the Year. She transcended into stardom.
Ionescu isn’t outrageously athletic, but she’s meticulous, a skillful sniper who slithers from baseline to baseline. Her basketball IQ is through the roof, and she won’t allow anyone to outwork her. After losing in last year’s Final Four to the eventual champion Baylor, Ionescu said, “I learned that sometimes your best isn’t good enough. You’ve got to be better, and better, and better.” That’s the Mamba mentality spewing out of her: Kobe Bryant, one of her biggest mentors and a close friend, taught her that. Their relationship started just more than a year ago with frequent text conversations about a mutual love for the game—Ionescu also served as a guest assistant coach to the Mamba Academy’s girls’ basketball team. Hours after the tragic helicopter accident that killed Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, Ionescu scored 19 points in a win while fighting through tears. After the game, she said, “Everything I do, I do it for him.” Her record-setting night came on February 24—2/24—hours after giving a riveting tribute to her mentor, Kobe, and her mentee, Gigi, at a memorial service in Los Angeles. “If I represented the present of the women’s game, Gigi was the future, and Kobe knew it. So we decided to build a future together,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of the generation that changed basketball for Gigi and her teammates. Where being born female didn’t mean being born behind, where greatness wasn’t divided by gender.”
Ionescu carved a path, not only to set those momentous records but to set a standard for the players who come after her. Everyone—male or female, little girls and little boys—knows no. 20; she’s the face of the game right now. Nike released Ionescu’s jersey in November, one of the first women’s collegiate basketball jerseys with a specific number on it, and it sold out in a few hours. She’s a part of a new-wave women’s basketball movement: She has a Ballislife highlight reel with more than 140,000 views on YouTube; she became the subject of a Bleacher Report Photoshop special and a SLAM feature. She has commanded people’s attention. “I’m trying to be the best advocate for women’s basketball, and, hopefully, being able to change the culture and how society views women in sports,” Ionescu said in an interview with CBS. She’s paving the way for up-and-coming hoopers like Paige Bueckers, Azzi Fudd, or Hailey Van Lith to claim their stake in the basketball sphere, and making it clear that it’s OK to not be just good, but great.
UConn no longer dominates the competitive landscape in women’s basketball. The field of contenders has been fiercely competitive in recent years. No teams finished this season unbeaten. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that several women’s basketball programs account for more than 50 percent of basketball attendance at their schools—the “Sabrina effect,” as the phenomenon has been called. During Ionescu’s freshman year, the Ducks’ women’s team accounted for only 19 percent of attendance for basketball games at Matthew Knight Arena; this season, the Oregon women were responsible for 58 percent. And it’s not just a U of O thing. You can find similar trends at Oregon State (60 percent), Mississippi State (54), and South Carolina (50), among others. Women’s basketball is commanding our attention.
Even though Ionescu’s college career didn’t get the ending it deserved, this is—and I can’t stress this enough—just the beginning. So far, the WNBA draft is still set for April 17, and Ionescu will undoubtedly go no. 1 to the New York Liberty and play in Brooklyn next season. She’ll start her new chapter with the Mamba mentality in tow. And she’ll be all right. Kobe told her so: “Be you, it’s been good enough, and that will continue to be good enough.” We can’t dwell on the “what ifs” and the “what could’ve beens.” We don’t know what would have happened in the NCAA tournament, and we never will. Let’s continue to marinate in what we do know: Sabrina Ionescu was the best basketball player this year, and as much as we would’ve enjoyed cheering her on in pursuit of a national championship banner, she didn’t need one to affirm that statement.
Earlier this month, almost a year after claiming she still had unfinished business and opting out of the draft, Ionescu ended her season as a Pac-12 champion in Las Vegas on the Aces’ home floor at Mandalay Bay. She may not have had the opportunity to redeem last year’s Final Four blemish, but green-and-gold confetti dropped from the ceiling. College basketball history became “her story” this season—and for that, basketball fans everywhere are thankful.