As Ionescu nears end of college career, Arizona sports figures give nod of respect

Oregon superstar and senior guard Sabrina Ionescu has quickly become a transcendent athlete from becoming the first college player to reach the 2,000-point, 1,000-rebound, 1,000-assist plateau to speaking at the memorial service for Kobe Bryant. (Photo by Nathan Hiatt/Cronkite News)

LAS VEGAS – Arizona coach Adia Barnes believes that Oregon superstar guard Sabrina Ionescu made the best decision in her life when she returned for her senior season – even if it didn’t turn out so well for Barnes and the Wildcats.

Ionescu and the Ducks knocked Arizona out in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals.

But during her senior season, Ionescu has become a transcendent athlete and a national star as her popularity has continued to grow. The 5-foot-11 guard is a consensus No. 1 overall selection in the next WNBA Draft.

Ann Meyers Drysdale – Phoenix Mercury vice president, television analyst and member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – is a big fan.

“I think Sabrina is the future,” Meyers Drysdale said at the Final Four last season. “The way she plays the game both ends of the floor, and I think that is lost sometimes in the game today both on the men’s and women’s side. … Sabrina goes out and she plays, and she has fun.

“It is not about what she does. It is about what she does for her teammates, and I love her game.”

Ionescu recently became the only college basketball player in history to reach the 2,000-point, 1,000-rebound and 1,000-assist career plateaus, which she reached with a 21-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist performance at Stanford only hours after speaking at a memorial service for former Lakers star Kobe Bryant.

As the best player on a national championship contender, gaudy statistics and her performance in the wake of that emotional Bryant service, Ionescu’s presence has raised the profile of the Oregon program and the women’s game.

Yet, she remains grounded.

“I don’t really think too much about myself and what I am doing,” Ionescu said. “I am just honored and humbled to be a part of something bigger than myself and playing for those people around me that I love and excited to see how our team is really changing society and society’s view on women in sports.

“That is something I am really proud about and proud to be a part of.”

Then-No. 3 Oregon (31-2) – the Pac-12 regular-season champion – went on to win the conference tournament, defeating No. 7 Stanford (27-6) in the final, 89-56.

When the NCAA Tournament starts later this month, fans will likely see Ionescu a few more times in a Ducks uniform. Oregon could potentially be the No. 1 overall seed on Selection Monday.

Barnes said that Ionescu, who has averaged 18.0 points, 7.7 assists and 7.3 assists while starting all 142 games in her Oregon career, is a phenomenal player, but added that Ionescu is more than just really good at playing basketball.

“She has been a great ambassador for our game,” Barnes said. “Things like speaking at Kobe (Bryant’s) funeral and the way she has connected a lot of NBA players to our game. It only helps our game, and she is a good representative. Her work ethic, (and) just who she is and how she leads her team, is remarkable.”

As Barnes reflected in the Mandalay Bay Events Center, she added that she was proud that Ionescu came back to Oregon for her “unfinished business,” as Ionescu described it in an article for The Players’ Tribune when she announced she would return for her senior season. Barnes said Ionescu has continued to improve offensively and defensively, which she said will be vital in the WNBA.

Oregon superstar and senior guard Sabrina Ionescu has received ultimate respect from Arizona sports figures, including Arizona junior guard Aari McDonald, who said Ionescu “doesn’t really have any weaknesses.” (Photo by Nathan Hiatt/Cronkite)

Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne shared similar sentiments about Ionescu earlier in the season.

“Anytime you have great players that draw attention and are as good as her, it is always good for the game,” Turner Thorne said. “She is very special.”

Ionescu, with all her popularity, has sparked more interest in women’s basketball and become an inspiration to many young girls.

Wherever Ionescu plays there are young people wearing Oregon gear or cheering for the Ducks, and that was especially evident in Las Vegas at the Pac-12 Tournament.

“That is always humbling to be an inspiration for those that need someone to look up to, and especially the younger generations,” Ionescu said. “We put ourselves in their shoes, and we realize that we were those kids. We were those kids, trying to find someone to look up to and someone to be inspired by.

“Just trying to be the best mentors and the best individuals on and off the basketball court that we can is something that we pride ourselves in.”

Oregon forwards Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally are also standouts, but Barnes said that it is Ionescu and Oregon coach Kelly Graves who are the catalysts that built Oregon into the formidable team it is going into the NCAA Tournament.

“It is very similar to what (junior guard) Aari (McDonald) is doing at Arizona,” Barnes said. “Because we will get players, and great players want to play with other great players.”

McDonald, a transfer from Washington, averaged 24.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game as a sophomore and is averaging 20.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game this season for No. 13 Arizona (24-7). She scored 34 points to go with five rebounds and five assists in the loss Saturday against Oregon.

As an opponent, McDonald has always been impressed with Ionescu.

Ionescu wears the crown of “Triple-Double Queen” with 26 in her career, the most in college basketball history – and counting. It is more than double the 12 that former Brigham Young guard Kyle Collinsworth, who ranks second, had during his career.

And then there is that remarkable 2,000-point, 1,000-rebound and 1,000-assist milestone.

“It has never been done in college basketball ever, so who is to say it will ever happen,” Graves said. “It would be pretty neat to be in a club all by yourself, wouldn’t it?

“It has really been a blessing and an inspiration to coach her each and every day and to see the greatness that she displays not just on game nights, but (also) what she is doing in practice every day.”

McDonald compared Ionescu to former Washington star Kelsey Plum, the all-time leading scorer in women’s college basketball who is now playing for the WNBA Las Vegas Aces.

Plum, who attended several games at the Pac-12 Tournament, finished her college career with 3,527 points, which was just 141 points shy of the all-time college basketball career scoring record of 3,667 held by Louisiana State guard “Pistol” Pete Maravich.

McDonald also cited current Texas A&M guard Chennedy Carter but admitted it is difficult to compare anybody to Ionescu.

“That is hard because I am talking about a player that doesn’t really have any weaknesses,” McDonald said. “I have been playing against Sabrina since high school, and she is just a very smart basketball player and can pretty much do it all.

“It is impressive, and just the amount of respect that I have for her is crazy. Real hoopers know real hoopers.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix