The Oregon Ducks 2020-21 women's basketball season ended Sunday in a lopsided defeat to the No. 2 Lousiville Cardinals in the Sweet 16.
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But that doesn't tell the whole story. Oregon was without starting point guard Te-Hina Paopao, the team's backup point guard and best perimeter defender Maddie Scherr suffered a game-ending ankle injury, Nyara Sabally also suffered a game-ending ankle injury and Sedona Prince fought foul trouble.
For large portions of the game, the Ducks did not even play a point guard with Jaz Shelley day-to-day, although she did see four minutes of game action in garbage time.
"We didn't play our best," said Graves who added he gives a ton of credit to the Cardinals. "Didn't have really all the pieces that we needed."
Despite all that, Oregon made a run in the second half to get to within six points, with multiple opportunities to get closer, before it all came crashing down in an 18-point loss.
After the game, head coach Kelly Graves seemed more upbeat than most coaches would be after a season-ending loss. Why?
He knows the best is yet to come.
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"I know we can take it a step or two or even more further," said Graves. "I truly do. I think we've got a championship makeup. I think I know a little bit about that. Never have won one, but certainly have been in a position to. I really like the group that we have coming back."
Graves is right. He coached Oregon to a Final Four in 2019 and then Oregon was seen as an odds-on favorite to win the National Championship in 2020 before the coronavirus canceled the tournament.
But one season later, 80% of that season's starting lineup was gone with three of them being selected in the first round of the 2020 WNBA Draft.
Only Erin Boley returned along with five incoming five-star freshmen, transfer Taylor Mikesell and two posts (Prince and Sabally) who had been with the team but haven't played yet due to injuries and NCAA regulations.
"This was the absolute worst season to be young," added Graves. "When you consider Sedona and Nyara, they're not technically freshmen, but this was their first year of basketball. They were behind the freshmen even. They hadn't played in two years. That's difficult. Then five true freshmen, nine new people on this basketball team. With very little opportunity.
"Yeah, I applaud them. I am so proud of my team. Like I said, this was a tough year. It's a tough year for everybody. But when you're young, it was even worse. I'm glad that we made it this far. I think we can use this as a springboard."
With a loss in the Sweet 16 this season, Graves sees that as the floor for this class now.
"Think about the group we have coming back when you start with Paopao, Nyara Sabally, Sedona Prince, Taylor Mikesell. The list goes on and on. I could have mentioned all 10 or 11 players we have back.
"This is going to be a really good group. This group isn't going away. We're only going to get better. Now that we have an opportunity to work with each other actually, I think you're going to see huge growth.
Graves said Oregon had the youngest team in the NCAA Tournament, with so much of that talent returning, there is truly nowhere to go but up.
"I can't say how proud I am of my team," continued the Ducks head coach. "I mean, seriously. Look how young this group is and look how far we got. There's 350-some-odd Division I teams. We made it to the final 16. Like I said, we're going to use this as a springboard and we're going to build on it."
Building on the 2020-21 season will begin nearly immediately.
"Now, we got to get better," said Graves. "We got to get healthier, which I think means we got to get stronger. We got to put in the work on the court and off the court. "
With the spring term beginning Monday, Graves said the team will "really get started on not just conditioning but skill development and really all the things that we need to improve on" in three weeks.
All in all, Graves loves where he has directed the Oregon program.
"I'm really excited about the future of Duck basketball. Think about it, you guys, in the last five seasons, this is what we've done: Elite 8, Elite 8, Final Four. 2020, who knows. I still think we were the best team and had a chance to win it all. Then this year the Sweet 16.
"Until we... cut down those final nets, there's always something out there that we're chasing. But, again, what a great season. That's what I'm going to remember," concluded Graves.