During the golden age of Oregon women’s basketball, there was perhaps no bigger night than March 10, 2000.
On that date, the Ducks beat Oregon State before a sellout crowd of 9,087 in McArthur Court. It was the regular-season finale for the UO women, who won the Pac-10 title while playing before an average home crowd of 5,852, still the school record.
Results on the court and enthusiasm in the seats have been on a downward trajectory since. But that seems poised to change with the introduction Tuesday of new UO head coach Kelly Graves.
“To the people who have been saying for years that we need a change, this is the hire we’ve been waiting for,” said Peg Rees, a former three-sport athlete for the Ducks and a dedicated fan of the women’s basketball program.
Graves was named the seventh head coach in UO women’s basketball history Monday, and an introductory press conference was held Tuesday. He was in town over the weekend to meet with his new players, and on Tuesday got to meet with school administrators, his new coaching colleagues at Oregon and several dozen fans who attended the press event.
“I’m really excited for the girls,” said Judy Grubbs, a season-ticket holder. “We want them to be successful and happy, and have the same opportunities to play in the postseason that other teams have.”
Graves’ meeting with UO players Sunday was far from his first introduction in a few cases. He recruited Katelyn Loper, Lexi Petersen and Jordan Loera while at Gonzaga, and Graves worked with Jillian Alleyne during a tryout last spring when Graves was an assistant coach with a USA Basketball under-19 team.
Petersen’s first official visit as a recruit was to the Gonzaga campus.
“I loved coach Graves,” Petersen said. “When I was on my visit it seemed like a real family atmosphere. I really liked it; I almost went there.”
Petersen said UO players “recognize his accomplishments,” as a coach who has won 10 straight WCC titles and played in the last six NCAA Tournaments, and that “everybody is on board.”
Alleyne recalled the first time she posted up against Graves in a drill during the national team tryout, when she tripped and fell to the court. Graves quickly encouraged her to get back to her feet and continue the drill, avoiding a potentially embarrassing moment.
“He was really positive and encouraging,” said Alleyne, one of several players in the front row for Graves’ introduction Tuesday. “That’s what I’m really excited about. He knows the post, and he’s passionate about it. And I need a post coach.”
Graves said during the press conference he’ll tailor his team’s style of play to the makeup of the roster. During Gonzaga’s Elite Eight run in 2011, the Bulldogs led the nation in scoring with 85.3 points per game; this past season Gonzaga was 45th at 75.1 points per game, but 13th in scoring defense at 56.5 points per game.
“I hope that we can still keep the run, because I know that’s why a lot of us came here and it’s what I do,” Alleyne said. “But what I’m really excited about and expecting is defense. We need a defensive scheme, something that’s going to really work.”
Barry Polonsky, another season-ticket holder, was a friend of departed coach Paul Westhead’s, and a fan of his uptempo style. But Polonsky attended Tuesday’s introduction for Graves, and appreciated his open-minded approach to playing styles.
“A lot of coaches come in and already have an idea of what they want to do,” Polonsky said. “But one year (Graves) might play one way, another year he might play another. And he’s been doing this long enough to know all that stuff.”
Fans like Polonsky, Grubbs and Rees are eager to see the program return to the sort of heights it enjoyed more than a decade ago, such as that Civil War game in 2000. And Graves sounded eager to enlist their help in making it happen.
“He may be where the buck stops, but he’s looking to all of us to be a part of the success of the program,” Rees said. “It’s a chicken-and-the-egg thing: Winning helps, but put people in the seats who are loyal to the team, and that lifts the team. We can have an impact on the success of this program.”
Some dedicated fans were disappointed not to have a female coach take over the UO women’s program. Rees described herself as “very much pro women coaching women,” but said she understood the choice by UO administration in this case.
“What the leadership has done here is said, we need an established, known quantity with a good reputation,” Rees said. “And this was the best person for the job at the time. It’s as simple as that.”