The nation's longest active winning streak came to an end Sunday afternoon, as the No. 8 Oregon Ducks (8-1, 6-1) lost its first game of the season to No. 11 UCLA (6-2, 4-2) at Matthew Knight Arena.
"Any close game like that where it's a really good team like UCLA is going to leave a bad taste in your mouth," said senior Erin Boley.
The loss not only snapped a 27-game winning streak overall, but it was the first loss at Matthew Knight Arena for the Ducks since February 22nd, 2019 which was coincidentally also against the Bruins.
"A lot of disappointment," said Ducks head coach Kelly Graves of his players' reaction. "27 in a row. You know it was going to come to an end at some point more than likely, but yeah, the first one really hits you, hits you hard."
But that winning streak was largely due to the 2019-20 Oregon team which boasted arguably the three greatest players in program history: Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard, and Satou Sabally. With all three of those women having a WNBA rookie season under their belts, Oregon has entered a new era of the program.
Sabrina, Ruthy, and Satou elevated the program to national relevance. Now, it's up to the next generation of Ducks to keep that standard and keep the program trending upward.
Kelly Graves brought in five 5-star recruits to Eugene in the past cycle, headlined by guard Te-Hina Paopao who has started all nine games this season and was the first true freshman to start in Oregon's season-opener since Sabrina herself.
While the team brings back key pieces from the Ionescu era in Erin Boley, reigning Pac-12 6th Player of the Year Taylor Chavez (who was unavailable Sunday), and Jaz Shelley, the 2020-21 Ducks consists of largely new players transitioning to college basketball for the first time. Aside from the five freshmen, posts Sedona Prince and Nyara Sabally are playing college basketball for the first time after overcoming injuries that forced them to sit out previous seasons.
Transfer Taylor Mikesell is the only new addition to this Oregon Ducks team to have real college experience having started all 75 games in her collegiate career.
"We actually played a lot of freshmen tonight, a lot of minutes," explained the Ducks head coach. "There were times we had four freshmen plus Nyara [Sabally] who is really a freshman in her own right, out on the court."
Heading into the season, Graves mentioned this may be the best three-point shooting team he's coached at Oregon, and in nine games, it's easy to see why. As a team, Oregon has shot 38% from behind the arc and has four players shooting 40% or higher: Erin Boley (45%), Te-Hina Paopao (40%), Taylor Chavez (40%), and Taylor Mikesell (47.2%). Also, Jaz Shelley has begun the season shooting 30.8% on three-point attempts but she shot 42% as a freshman on 177 attempts so her average will rise as the season goes on.
Oregon has the talent and offensive firepower to be one of the best teams in the nation. Honestly, Oregon is already one of the best teams in the country despite relying heavily on young players finding their bearings at the college level.
Losing by two to an extremely good UCLA team full of veterans, led by senior Michaela Onyenwere who had 33 points and 10 rebounds Sunday on 12-20 from the floor, isn't a result to hang your head on. Especially with Sedona Prince, arguably Oregon's best player, and Chavez unavailable for the game.
After the game, Kelly Graves predicted Onyenwere will be one of the top picks in the 2021 WNBA Draft but that he was proud of how his team defended her down the stretch.
"Other than that putback she got on her own miss, I actually thought we defended her better at least late."
Onyenwere ended the game making just one of her final five shots, which came on an offensive rebound and turned the ball over with 24 seconds remaining.
In the second half, UCLA twice went on large runs to take double-digit leads, and instead of calling it a game, the Ducks never gave up and answered the Bruins by tying up the game both times.
"I was really proud of our team," said Graves after the game. "Twice we went behind double figures and each time we fought all the way back and had a chance to win it."
Down two of the Ducks best players, getting a wide-open Jaz Shelley three-pointer down two points with 1:37 left is a result Oregon would take every time. She missed it because misses happen, but the process to get the shot in that situation should make Graves happy with how his team performed.
Also in the biggest game of her young college career, Te-Hina Paopao rose to the occasion leading the Ducks in scoring with 19 points on 8-14 shooting while leading the Ducks in minutes by far with 35. Oregon's second-leading scorer? Another five-star freshman in Angela Dugalic who scored 13 points on 6-10 from the field with nine rebounds while guarding Onyenwere on the other end.
"That's back-to-back nine-rebound games for her and it was good offensively to see her do the job and she was on the court at the end," said Graves. "I think she's a big-time player, big-time talent. We haven't seen a lot of it yet only because of confidence. She's been doing a good job on the boards and defensively she keeps getting better.
"She earned it tonight and she played well... You want to have the kids in the game who give you the best chance."
However, despite the nice performances from the two freshmen, it wasn't enough as the Ducks' late-game execution failed with the Ducks traveling and getting tied up the final ten seconds. Graves took responsibility for failing to put his players in a position to succeed, but also did not sugarcoat that the season will only get tougher for his team. He's glad the team feels bad about the loss because it means they care, but his team needs to move on, grow and play better with a road trip to #1 Stanford on Friday.
"Listen, hopefully, we feel really down, disappointed. We should but guess what? It doesn't get any easier. Now we get to go down to #1 Stanford so we got to learn from it, get better from it, and move on."
"We're learning, we're growing. We're really young. It showed a lot at the end of that game," added Boley.
While Graves doesn't believe a team needs to lose to learn how to win, he does see the bright side in his players experiencing a loss after not playing to the best of their ability.
"I think you can grow from wins, too... but now we have something tangible to talk to our kids about. 'See, if you don't do this and we don't do that, and just these little things here and there against good teams, you get exposed.'"
However, in the grand scheme of things, Ducks fans should not remember this game as the one which snapped the nation's longest win streak but rather the game where Oregon's promising freshmen grew up before our eyes and went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in college basketball.
"It's something we'll learn from and get better," explained Graves. "I like my team's character and makeup. I think we'll learn from it and move on."