TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Kelly Graves unfolded the white championship T-shirt handed to him and sat down to collect his thoughts.
One player broke away from the celebration inside Arizona’s McKale Center to hug the Ducks coach. Then another. Within seconds, the entire team surrounded him in one group hug.
At the bottom of this Duck pile, tears formed in Graves’ eyes.
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Oregon had risen to conference champions in four short years and it was almost too much for Graves to take.
No. 8 Oregon completed its rise from Pac-12 bottom dweller to conference champion on Sunday, knocking off Arizona 74-61 to win its first conference championship in 18 years.
”It’s pretty overwhelming,” said Graves, his voice still shaky. ”As coaches, one of our jobs is to help them realize their potential and their dreams. We had kids who wanted to be champions and worked their butts off.
”Today, they were rewarded with that. I’m happy for them and love each and every one of them – and told each and every one of them. It’s a good day, as you can tell.”
Oregon won four games in 2012-13 and has made a steady climb since Kelly was hired, reaching the WNIT Final Four in 2016 and the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight a year ago.
The Ducks (27-4, 16-2 Pac-12) were the class of the Pac-12 this season, clinching a share of the conference title by ending a 15-game road losing streak at Arizona State on Thursday.
All that was left was to knock off an Arizona team struggling in its second season under coach Adia Barnes.
Arizona (6-23, 2-14) put up a fight early and made a late comeback, but senior Lexi Bando hit a pair of 3-pointers to stem the Wildcats‘ push, sending the Ducks off the floor as Pac-12 champions for the first time since 1999-2000.
Ruthy Hebard scored 24 points and Bando finished with 15 for the Ducks, who closed the regular season with six straight wins and 10 in 11 games. Sabrina Ionescu, the NCAA record holder for triple doubles (9), filled up the stat sheet again, finishing with 16 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
Next up is the Pac-12 tournament, where Oregon will open with a bye, and what the Ducks hope will be a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
”This was our goal from the beginning and, obviously, to make a run in March,” Bando said. ”This is just another stepping stone to where we want to be.”
Oregon routed Arizona in the first meeting, Jan. 12 in Eugene, holding the Wildcats to 29 percent shooting in the 62-44 victory.
Arizona put up a bit of a fight in the first quarter, shooting a respectable 6 of 13 to stay within six of the Ducks.
But Oregon, just as it did in the third quarter against Arizona State, clamped down defensively in the second quarter, holding the Wildcats to 4 of 15 shooting. The Ducks led 33-23 behind Hebard’s 13 points.
Oregon continued to stretch the lead in the third quarter, pushing it to 52-33 with a late 6-0 run.
Arizona finally found a way to slow the Ducks midway through the fourth quarter, holding them scoreless for three minutes to trim the lead to 64-59.
Bando ended Arizona’s comeback bid with consecutive 3-pointers with just under three minutes left.
”You get within five, you have to find a way to bear down and get a stop,” Barnes said. ”Those are the things we don’t know how to do yet. You can’t allow that. Oregon knows how to do that. That was a dagger for sure.”
Oregon closed the season strong to earn the top seed in the Pac-12 tournament and is in position for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona has struggled in Barnes’ second season as coach, but could at least gain some momentum with a win in next week’s Pac-12 tournament.
Thomas had a quiet game against Oregon State, finishing with two points on 1-of-5 shooting. The freshman was much more aggressive against the Ducks, hitting 7 of 12 shots from the field, including 3 of 6 from 3-point range.
”I love her being aggressive, I love her looking for her shot,” Barnes said. ”Tonight she came alive. I really think she took it personal that she didn’t play well last game.”
Oregon has a first-round bye in next week’s Pac-12 tournament in Seattle.
Arizona opens the Pac-12 tournament in the opening round on Thursday.