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UO wins title and even more.

Byline: Ron Bellamy / The Register-Guard

THE VICTORIOUS Ducks had mobbed each other at center court and fallen in a giddy pile, and later they'd held the championship trophy aloft, and cut down a net, and basked in the applause of 6,835 who stayed to be part of this celebration in McArthur Court.

It was like something out of a movie, a guaranteed tear-jerker, about the embattled team that hung together and hung on, and that kept coming back, and kept coming from behind.

And when the fans finally started chanting "We want Bev, we want Bev, we want Bev," you were sure that this was a script, because life doesn't always tie the storylines into such a happy ending.

Except, for the Oregon women's basketball team this season, it did.

The Ducks won themselves a national tournament Wednesday evening, defeating the University of Houston 54-52 in the title game of the Women's NIT, and in end it won't matter to Oregon that it was an ugly, if hard-fought, game because the Ducks found a way to win it.

What this means to the program and its young team was captured by the motto on the back of the T-shirts the Ducks donned afterward: "Just the beginning."

What this means to their coach, Bev Smith, the erstwhile Duck superstar who came home to coach her alma mater's wounded team, is probably incalculable.

A year ago at this time, this program was in bitter turmoil, and that tore apart a community that had fallen in love with Oregon women's basketball, like the ugliest of divorces can rip up a family. When it was over, Jody Runge, the coach who was adored by many of those fans, the coach who'd taken Oregon women's basketball to eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances, had resigned and things were, essentially, in a bloody mess.

To fix that, the Ducks hired an Oregon women's basketball hero, Bev Smith, who'd coached in Europe and in the Olympics but never in college. The UO handed Smith a team that had just graduated its core players, and asked her to go win back a community.

It wasn't going to be easy, but perhaps in this WNIT that happened.

That was the Ducks' biggest crowd of the year Wednesday night, and it came with the game on local television, and it came after there's been a lot of women's basketball in town recently - the Pac-10 tournament, then three previous WNIT games here. The crowd was loud and passionate, and it hung with the Ducks on a night they shot miserably, and it willed them down the stretch.

Sure, this was "only" the WNIT, but that was a championship atmosphere in Mac Court.

That the Ducks got to the title game is in part because of that homecourt advantage - Oregon played seven of its last eight games, all in loser-out situations, at Mac Court - but also because of how competitively the Ducks played, and how they matured, and how well Smith led them.

The extra time that that Ducks got this season, as a result of the Pac-10 tournament and then the WNIT, wound up defining their season. If there aren't those tournaments, the season ends when the Ducks return home from an eight-point loss to Washington in Seattle, at 15-12, and there's still a lot prove.

But the Ducks won a couple in the Pac-10 tournament, and then embarked on their run through the WNIT, the five straight wins becoming their longest winning streak of the season.

As quirky as the WNIT is, it wound up playing perfectly for Oregon. Another game with Oregon State? It gave the Ducks a chance to wind up taking two of three from their Civil War rivals. Get sent to play the Huskies? Heavens, Oregon administrators complained about that, but in retrospect, they ought to thank the WNIT.

Because the win in Seattle is the key to this whole thing. It was a postseason win on the opposing team's homecourt for the first time in UO women's basketball history. Including the Pac-10 tournament, it was Oregon's second straight win over the Huskies in a loser-out game, and it was Oregon's third win over Washington in four tries, and in Northwest recruiting that has to mean something.

And the other big thing about the Washington win was that Smith benched her best player, Shaquala Williams, in the second half. It showed that she was in command of her team, and the Ducks showed something by pulling out the win, and a game later Williams had 21 to shoot Oregon past Michigan State and into the championship battle.

After all that, the postseason would have been a rousing success for Oregon even if the Ducks had lost Wednesday. But they figured they'd gone that far they might as well win the darn thing, and did.

In the end, it was Williams, on a night she was an icy 1-of-13, getting the ball to Cathrine Kraayeveld for the finger-roll layup with 2.4 seconds left, about the exact time on the clock as Frederick Jones' finger roll with 2.8 seconds left that lifted the Oregon men's team to its last win of an historic season, over Texas for a berth in the Elite Eight.

As the Ducks celebrated, Smith embraced her old teammate, assistant coach Allison McNeill, and then stood in a corner of Mac Court, leaving the spotlight to her players, until senior Ndidi Unaka brought Smith the cut-down net and placed it around her neck. The Ducks and their coach had won the game and the title, and as the season's largest crowd roared its approval, you sensed they'd also won something more.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 28, 2002
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