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Ducks' rise is no surprise to Mullens.

Byline: Ryan Thorburn The Register-Guard

Kelly Graves and his staff have built it.

And Oregon women's fans are starting to come out in droves.

A crowd of 7,249 made its presence felt during the Ducks' 75-63 victory over rival Oregon State last Sunday at Matthew Knight Arena.

It was the second-largest crowd for a women's basketball game in the venue's history.

A record 12,320 fans attended the first women's game at Matthew Knight Arena on Jan. 23, 2011, which also happened to be the program's previous win over the Beavers.

No. 7 Oregon has the best home record (13-0) in the NCAA and is averaging 3,465 in attendance with four regular-season home games remaining.

The Ducks (18-3 overall, 7-1 Pac-12) are in position to win the program's first conference title since the 1999-2000 season. Jody Runge's team averaged 5,852 in attendance at McArthur Court during that championship season.

Rob Mullens is not surprised by the program's rise. This is what Oregon's athletic director and senior associate athletic director/women's administrator Lisa Peterson envisioned when they hired Graves away from Gonzaga on April 7, 2014.

"We knew Kelly's track record when we recruited him here," Mullens said. "When we were on the speaking circuit we were saying, this is going to happen and it's probably going to happen faster than people think.

"But to Kelly and the coaching staff's credit, it has happened a lot faster than we even thought."

Oregon went 13-17 during Graves' first season, averaging 1,501 in home attendance. During the 2015-16 campaign, the Ducks averaged 1,629 fans and made a run to the WNIT semifinals.

The real fun began last season when a program-changing recruiting class, led by all-Pac-12 selections Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard, arrived on campus.

Oregon averaged 2,595 in attendance during the 2016-17 season at Matthew Knight Arena. Then the madness began with an upset of 11th-ranked Washington at the Pac-12 Tournament in Seattle, followed by a stunning run to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 10 seed.

The road to a Final Four will almost certainly begin in Eugene for the Ducks this March. The top 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament host first- and second-round games.

The selection committee had Oregon penciled in as the fourth No. 1 seed before last weekend's split with Oregon State.

ESPN's bracket projection this week has the Ducks as a No. 2 seed playing No. 15 Weber State, with No. 7 Oklahoma State playing No. 10 LSU in the other first-round game at Matthew Knight Arena.

"I hope we can sell them out," Mullens said. "I mean, the opportunity to host an NCAA women's tournament at Matthew Knight Arena for the first time with a team that could be a high seed, what an incredible opportunity to show our team, to show our community, and to show the women's basketball world how important that sport is here at the University of Oregon."

Oregon has a one-game lead over No. 13 UCLA (15-4, 6-2) and Stanford (12-8, 6-2) in the standings.

The Ducks, who defeated the Bruins 70-61 on Jan. 7 at Pauley Pavilion, host UCLA in the final regular-season home game Feb. 19. In the Pac-12's unbalanced schedule, Oregon avoids the Bay Area road trip this season and faces the Cardinal on Feb. 4 in Eugene.

"It's an incredible opportunity," Mullens said. "I don't want to get ahead of myself, but I'm really, really excited thinking about it."

Long after Oregon's win Sunday night, which ended a 14-game losing streak against Oregon State, a line of autograph-seeking kids still snaked its way around the court as the team's stars signed posters.

Ionescu, already the NCAA's career triple-double record holder, is the Pac-12 player of the year favorite. The sophomore guard leads the conference in scoring (19.8 ppg) and assists (7.3 apg) and is second on the team in rebounding (7.1 rpg).

Hebard is averaging 16.7 points and a team-high 8.2 rebounds per game in the post. Maite Cazorla is averaging 10.6 points and 5.4 assists in the backcourt.

Satou Sabally is the conference's highest scoring freshman (11.2 ppg), and Mallory McGwire helped neutralize Oregon State star Marie Gulich in the Civil War series.

Graves hopes to get Lexi Bando, the NCAA's active leader in three-point shooting (45.5 percent), back from a leg injury for the stretch run. Phil Knight has even called Mullens for updates on the status of the senior shooting guard.

"What an outstanding group of young women," Mullens said. "It is fun to see them play, it is great to see them off the court. The culture and the atmosphere that they've created as a team is something very special.

"I think that's why people are starting to catch on, because they are fun to be around."
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Title Annotation:Oregon Women Basketball; Oregon AD envisioned this type of success when he hired Graves, but it's come faster than anticipated
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 24, 2018
Words:814
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