EUGENE, Ore. >> As Becky Sisley sat in her prized midcourt seat in the gleaming glass-and-steel Matthew Knight Arena, she could gaze across the boisterous student section — dotted with football players — and over to Gov. Kate Brown and the Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, then up to the far reaches of a gym where none of the 12,364 seats were empty.
In certain moments — like when Sabrina Ionescu, the University of Oregon’s incandescent star, sank 3-pointers at the buzzer to end the first and third quarters — the players not only heard the crowd, they also felt its reverberations.
The scene was enough to take Sisley back to 1966, when the women’s team she coached at Oregon featured more rudimentary basketball: half-court games; pinnies for uniforms; and once-a-week practices. The team played six games that season.
“It’s unbelievable,” Sisley said of the changes between then and now.
What is happening here, along the southern end of the evergreen Willamette Valley, may well serve as a model for any college basketball program’s aspirations. Oregon and Oregon State — rivals who have made smart coaching hires, established strong financial commitments and forged close ties to their communities — collided twice on a recent weekend that sized up both teams’ Final Four potential. And helping drive the excitement was Ionescu, who is likely to be selected No. 1 in the WNBA draft in April.
The weekend came in the second consecutive season that their home-and-away series was played in front of sold-out crowds at their arenas, which are less than 50 miles apart along State Highway 99. When they met — first on a Friday night in Eugene, then in Corvallis two days later — Oregon, now ranked third by The Associated Press, swept Oregon State, which is No. 9.
Though Oregon won in Corvallis for the first time since 2010 on that Sunday, the celebration was muted. News that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash broke about 90 minutes before tipoff, a gut-wrenching moment for the Ducks, who had been visited a handful of times by Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who also died in the crash. They sat courtside as recently as December, when the Ducks played at Long Beach State.
Though it was difficult to play, some players said afterward that competing honored Bryant’s memory. And the atmosphere, with the crowd fiercely behind the Beavers, may have helped briefly refocus the players toward basketball — particularly when Oregon State surged to a 6-point lead late in the second quarter. Oregon seized control in the third, but the crowd remained engaged until the final seconds.
“How many people can pull in this kind of crowd, this atmosphere two games in a row?” said Destiny Slocum, the Oregon State point guard. “Growing up in Idaho, I couldn’t imagine these would be two of the biggest games of the year.”
Not long ago, it was hard to see this coming at either school — particularly at Oregon State, which fired coach LaVonda Wagner in 2010 after a last-place conference finish, a raft of player defections and accusations that, according to The Oregonian, Wagner had thrown a chair during a locker room rant and ordered players to attend Weight Watchers sessions.
The Beavers turned to Scott Rueck, who a year before had coached nearby George Fox University to the Division III national championship.
“I heard people say it was the worst job in America,” said Rueck, an Oregon State alumnus. “When I first got here, I’m sitting there with a D3 background, no staff, one scholarship player, three freshmen and a junior college kid coming in, and it’s July 1. Six months later, I’m supposed to be coaching against Stanford. So it was utter chaos.”
Oregon’s circumstances were better — but only marginally.
In 2014, it parted ways with Paul Westhead, a former NBA coach whose contract only required him to live in Eugene for seven months each year, and replaced him with Kelly Graves, who had turned Gonzaga into a perennially ranked program.
“This was a sleeping giant with the facilities, the support for women’s athletics,” Graves said of Oregon. “I had the best deal in college hoops at Gonzaga, and the salary was good, but at some point, I thought, it’s going to be hard to win a national championship there.”
The two programs have operated on parallel tracks over the last six years, combining for at least a share of all of the last five Pac-12 Conference championships and each gaining a Final Four berth — Oregon State in 2016 and Oregon last season.
Still, the identities of the programs are as distinct as the buildings they play in — the Ducks in their grand house built with help from Nike founder Phil Knight, and the Beavers in Gill Coliseum, a 9,604-seat basketball barn that is short on amenities but long on history.
Oregon has one of the most efficient offenses in the country, playing fast and free, while Oregon State is typically one of the best defensively, with a great attention to detail and an offensive playbook that guard Mikayla Pivec likened to “The Cheesecake Factory menu — it goes on and on.”
A rare common thread between the programs — and a lingering source of friction, as both coaches acknowledge — is the Oregon associate head coach, Mark Campbell, a top recruiter who left Oregon State in 2014 to join Graves, switching sides in a cutthroat competition for top players. (Campbell played at the University of Hawaii).
“There is no easy way to just be buddies when you’ve got some high-stakes recruiting battles going on year after year,” Campbell said. “There’s going to be tension — not only with Oregon State. When you’re a new kid on the block, you ruffle some feathers when you’re signing impact players.”
Sore feelings or not, Oregon State has hummed along with five-star freshman forwards, Kennedy Brown and Taylor Jones, and with an elite guard, Sasha Goforth, arriving next season. Only two players have transferred in the last seven years, Rueck said, explaining that his staff identifies athletes who will fit well. “I do very well with a mature 18-year-old who is goal-oriented and driven,” he said. “I don’t do well with immaturity. I’m not a baby sitter.”
For its part, Oregon is bringing in five McDonald’s All-Americans next season, along with Sedona Prince, a former five-star recruit who is sitting out this season after transferring from Texas.
It is hard, though, to imagine any of them matching the impact of Ionescu.
She leads the country in assists per game (8.6 as of Wednesday) and keeps extending her career record for triple-doubles — 23 through Monday, more than any other player in NCAA history, man or woman. And her skills — a deadeye shooter, crafty dribbler and prescient passer with an off-the-charts basketball IQ — have drawn shout-outs from LeBron James and Stephen Curry, as well as widespread adoration from those closer to Eugene.
Dozens upon dozens of fans — adults and children, male and female — wore her No. 20 jersey at the Ducks’ 76-64 home win over Oregon State on Jan. 24. And there were those like Henry Fleener, a senior studying fish and wildlife at Oregon State who turned out in Corvallis for his first women’s basketball game, one that had been sold out for more than a month.
“I wanted to see Sabrina,” he said. “She’s a big deal.”
Ionescu said it was still jarring, and humbling, to see so many people wearing her jersey. Later, she considered the value of her popularity.
“When I see my jersey or signature on sale on eBay for $400 or $500, I’m like, ‘Wow, people are actually making money off of something that I’m signing,’” she said in an interview. “I don’t think about it too much, but I do when I go to the store and see that my jersey is $75 or a shirt is $35.”
She added that she hoped that athletes would be able to profit from their own fame under new rules being considered for college sports, in a way that would be “in the best interest of the student athletes and not only” the schools and the NCAA.
Graves encourages his players to use their platform for causes that are important to them — a green light that Ionescu and Satou Sabally, her sidekick from Germany, have embraced.
They chided Nike on Twitter in November for not producing replica Oregon women’s jerseys (the company soon began selling them) and called out the NCAA as hypocritical for requiring players to sit out a season if they transfer while coaches change schools with almost no restrictions. Sabally also uses social media to highlight instances of racism and social injustice.
“People have those dumb stereotypes of athletes that all we do is sports,” said Sabally, who moved to her father’s native Gambia shortly after she was born in New York, then to Germany when she was 6. “Coming from a multicultural background, I’ve been affected by so many things — or I’ve seen friends affected — so I can sympathize a little more. People need to speak up more. And I can, so I will.”
This willingness to engage off the court appears to have helped each team’s popularity. Oregon’s postgame autograph sessions were recently curtailed because the lines snaked around the arena concourse.
Pivec, Oregon State’s senior leader who graduated in three years with a bio-health sciences degree, volunteers at a women’s homeless shelter and together with Slocum started a community service club for athletes.
Bev Smith, an All-American at Oregon in the early 1980s and later the school’s coach, said the popularity of the two teams — who are easily outdrawing their male counterparts this season — shows what can result from strong investments in female athletes, an issue that has gained traction in other sports, such as through the U.S. women’s soccer team’s push for equal pay and the WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement.
“It’s not just ‘nice to be here’ anymore,” Smith said. “Women have looked to reinvest in what they’re doing. If you talk to the women, they have a global picture of what they’re being a part of — they feel a part of their team, and the team feels a part of the community.”
The bond between the players and the community is highlighted at Oregon State by an enduring ritual that began when there were only a few hundred fans. The players remain on the court after games — win or lose — to sign autographs and chat. It is called the eight-minute mingle.
After the 66-57 loss to the Ducks in Corvallis, it made for a melancholy scene.
Pivec, who had 20 points and 12 rebounds, signed autographs and talked with a gaggle of little girls at midcourt. But Linda Richmond, a woman old enough to be Pivec’s mother, sensed the disappointment underneath her smile.
“It’s just a game,” Richmond told her.
“That’s not true,” Pivec said.
“Look me in the eye and tell me that,” Richmond said.
Pivec could not.
Instead, she was drawn into Richmond’s embrace and began to cry.