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Oregon faces next rival for lead

February 1, 2018 GMT

Sabrina Ionescu, never one to back away from a challenge, would love to play in front of her family and friends in the Bay Area again this season.

Oregon’s Walnut Creek, Calif., import returned from a thumb injury to hit the stunning game-winning three-pointer at California in her first career Pac-12 game as a true freshman.

The first-place Ducks, seeking the program’s first conference title in 18 years, catch a scheduling break this season.

No. 6 Oregon hosts No. 25 Cal at 8 p.m. Friday and No. 24 Stanford at noon Sunday at Matthew Knight Arena, but Kelly Graves’ team doesn’t have to make the return trip in the Pac-12’s unbalanced regular-season schedule.

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“You might want that second game against them if you need it,” Graves said. “But those are two good teams, and good teams usually play well at home, so if you miss them at their place that’s probably a positive.

“They talk about fairness with the schedule, and every year it’s going to be a little unfair to somebody.”

The two teams Oregon swept on the road last week, Colorado and Utah, don’t visit Eugene this season. Entering the critical homestand, the Ducks (20-3, 9-1 Pac-12) have a one-game lead over Stanford (14-8, 8-2) and No. 9 UCLA (17-4, 8-2).

No. 16 Oregon State (16-5, 7-3) is alone in fourth place, and Cal (15-6, 6-4) is tied with Arizona State (15-7, 6-4) for fifth.

Oregon’s road to a conference title will be easier without stops in Berkeley and Stanford.

“Oh, definitely,” Ionescu said. “It’s going to be so fun playing here. Our crowds have been great. They play such a big role in our games here. We’re so juiced and fired up to play teams here. It’s definitely a hard place to compete at when we have so many Duck fans cheering for us.

“That definitely plays to our advantage. So it will be nice to play two top-25 teams here in the same weekend.”

Oregon’s dramatic comeback last season at Cal improved its record in Berkeley to 12-16. The Ducks are 1-29 all-time at Stanford and approaching the 31st anniversary of the program’s lone road win in the series (63-54 on March 5, 1987).

“I’d rather be playing them only once at home than only once on the road,” Graves said.

Despite Oregon’s sudden emergence as a contender and the recent Final Four appearances by Oregon State and Washington, the Cardinal are still viewed nationally as women’s basketball royalty.

That isn’t likely to change as long as coach Tara VanDerveer, coming off her 12th Final Four appearance last March, remains on the bench.

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“They’ve been the standard, really over the last couple decades, by which all of us are judged,” Graves said. “So anytime you beat Stanford that’s a good day. But we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Stanford leads the all-time series with Oregon 53-9, including 23 victories in the past 24 meetings.

Senior guard Lexi Bando, who will not play this weekend because of a leg injury, is the only player on Graves’ roster that was a part of the Ducks’ 62-55 upset of the Cardinal in 2015.

“They’ve been great for so many years, and their coach does a great job with them,” Ionescu said. “People didn’t think they were going to be very good this year because of how many people they lost. But they beat UCLA and they’ve beaten great teams.”

Seven of Stanford’s eight losses this season were to ranked teams. All six of Cal’s losses were to ranked teams.

The Ducks are 5-3 against ranked teams with their only three losses coming in true road games at then-No. 5 Louisville, then-No. 5 Mississippi State and then-No. 18 Oregon State.

“No pressure at all standings-wise or rankings-wise,” Ionescu said when asked if Oregon was feeling the weight of greater expectations. “We definitely feel pressure coming into this weekend playing two top-25 teams. We have to be on our ‘A’ game the whole weekend. We can’t have any slip-ups like we did at Oregon State.”