Unfinished Business: College Hoops Coda


For one team, and especially one player, 2020 was about unfinished business. Of course, with the abrupt cancellation of March Madness, 2020 left unfinished business for everyone.

But first, that player and that team.

Sabrina Ionescu’s past year was movie material. It started with bringing Oregon to its first Final Four, where they lost to eventual champion Baylor. Then came the surprise announcement that she would play her senior season, putting a WNBA career on hold for one last chance to win a title. Ionescu called it “unfinished business.”

Oregon came into the preseason ranked first overall. They beat Team USA, faltered during a neutral site game against then-No. 8 Louisville, and dropped their first Pac-12 road game against Arizona State. Then, the unthinkable happened. A helicopter crash in LA claimed the lives of Kobe Bryant (a mentor to Ionescu), his daughter and seven others. Somehow, someway, Ionescu managed to play that night, and, when basketball mattered least, she led her team to a season sweep of rival Oregon State.

A month later, Ionescu became the only Division I player to ever record 2,000-points, 1,000 assists, and 1,000 rebounds in a career, only hours after speaking at the Kobe Bryant Memorial in Los Angeles. She played through the flu after flying from LA to Stanford, all while beating the Cardinal on their home court and notching her 26th (and final) career triple double, by far the most in collegiate history.

Storming through the Pac-12 tournament, Ionescu and Oregon confronted Stanford again in the championship, and a year after a heartbreaking loss, doubled down on their regular season conference title, throttling the Cardinal 89-56. Awaiting Oregon on the selection Monday that never came was another No. 1 seed and another opportunity for a Portland regional. Waiting forever, in New Orleans is the stage where Ionescu was supposed to be crowned, where she would finish her business, where the season she dedicated to Bryant was supposed to reach its pinnacle.

At least that’s the ending Hollywood would have written. Now, we’ll never know.

This week, Ionescu was voted the unanimous AP player of the year. She was also a first-team All-American for the third straight year. Ionescu was joined by Ruthy Hebard on the first team and Satou Sabally on the second team. Both their stories deserve a pause.

Hebard finished second on Oregon’s career points list, first in career field goals made, and first in the conference’s all-time field goal percentage. Sabally, just a junior but forever linked to her contemporaries, announced she would forego her senior season to enter the WNBA draft after back-to-back All-American campaigns.

Ionescu will be drafted first into the WNBA (even if it’s not the scheduled April 17 date). Hebard and Sabally will follow in the picks soon after.

But what about the Gamecocks?

Across the country, there’s a team that doesn’t think Oregon was destined for that Hollywood ending anyway.

South Carolina, after all, ended the season ranked atop the AP poll, with 26 first place votes to Oregon’s four. They were the real deal. According to FiveThirtyEight’s model, South Carolina was the only team besides Oregon that was more likely to reach the championship game than not. The two teams combined for a 63-3 record this season, and the Gamecocks had one fewer loss.

Their seniors, Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, were denied the opportunity to end their college career the same way it started — with a national championship. Their outstanding freshmen, Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal, will not have the chance to start their own path in a similar fashion.

And this would have been a meeting for the ages.

The first time the Final Four was hosted in New Orleans, the championship game itself went to overtime for the first time in its history. Fans across the country might have been in for an equally thrilling ending had Oregon’s big three and South Carolina’s standout trio of freshmen collided in the Big Easy.

Then again, they don’t call it March Madness for nothing, and it’s likely the games we can’t even imagine that are ultimately the biggest loss, the tournament matchups between Cinderellas and powerhouses that define this time of the year. The chaotic poetry of March Madness is unlike anything else precisely because it can’t be predicted.

History on pause: who’s grateful, who’s not

Notre Dame, which was likely going to miss the tournament, is able to maintain its 24-year streak. UConn, which had reached the Final Four every year since 2008, had its run snapped. (Or was it?)

Baylor was seeking to become the fourth program to ever win back-to-back titles, joining UConn, Tennessee, and USC. Now the Lady Bears will need to wait a year for another opportunity. Only this time, Baylor will be without Lauren Cox, who injured her knee during the championship last year but played the entire 2019-20 season and was named the Big 12 Player of the Year as well as a first-team All-American.

Conferences will also have to wait a year to make their case. The top heavy Pac-12 was fitted to have five teams seeded in the top sixteen. The Big Ten was supposed to send more teams to the NCAA tournament than any other league. And Charlie Creme’s bracketology for ESPN had seven teams from mid-major conferences earning single-digit seeds.

UConn and Stanford, two of the sport’s preeminent programs, each had a special moment on the line. UConn could have sent its senior class off with its first national title, saving the group from becoming the first since the 2004 recruiting class to leave Gampel Pavilion without a ring.

Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer could have matched the legendary Pat Summitt’s career wins mark of 1,098 with an upset to reach the Final Four. Instead, VanDerveer (and UConn’s Geno Auriemma, who is three wins behind VanDerveer) will likely achieve the feat in an early season game next year with much less on the table.

Both coaches, however, will have another shot. The graduating seniors, on the other hand, will not.

March sadness, indeed.