When No. 7 Oregon and No. 4 Mississippi State met on Tuesday night, the nationally broadcasted game featured two of the college basketball’s biggest stars in Ducks guard Sabrina Ionescu and Bulldogs center Teaira McCowan.
Ionescu and McCowan, both all-Americans and eventual top draft picks in the WNBA draft, have the potential to dominate on both ends of the court and single-handedly win games for their respective teams.
But as Oregon walked off the court with the 82-74 victory over Mississippi State, it wasn’t Ionescu or McCowan names being talked about most.
That honor went to Oregon’s Ruthy Hebard, the reigning national power forward of the year. Hebard did well on the offensive end — finishing with 14 points, six rebounds and two assists — but it was her defense on McCowan that drew praise from head coach Kelly Graves.
“It was mainly Ruthy tonight,” Graves said about how the Ducks held McCowan in check. “She just kept her outside of that painted area — if you can do that, you’ve got a chance — she (Hebard) was a warrior tonight, she really was.”
McCowan, who entered the game averaging 18.6 points and 12.8 rebounds, finished with a season-low five points and 11 rebounds. Despite playing nearly 34 minutes, McCowan only shot the ball five times as the 6-foot-4 Hebard was able to be more physical compared to the 6-foot-7 McCowan.
"I say at the beginning of every game, toughest team wins," Graves said. "And tonight, I thought we were the tougher team."
Consistently, Hebard was able to get lower than McCowan and force her to catch the ball outside the key, about eight feet from the rim. That’s significantly farther than McCowan is used too and because she was out of her element, her job was relegated to passing instead of scoring.
Hebard also kept great position at all times, drawing two offensive fouls on McCowan, one of which went for an “unsportsmanlike foul” after she took a McCowan elbow to the face in the first half.
“Absolutely incredible — I can’t even really put into words how much she’s been practicing mentally and physically to take down a great post player like that,” Ionescu said of Hebard’s play against McCowan. “We hold to her really high standards in her post play and tonight she showed what she was capable of… she really set the bar for us.”
The most satisfying moment tonight besides the win came with six minutes left in the game and Oregon leading by seven. Combining Hebard’s play with McCowan’s ineffectiveness, Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer took McCowan out of the game and she never returned.
Although the season hasn’t gone the way Hebard had expected from a personal standpoint, averaging just 15.8 points and 8.1 rebounds, she reminded everyone in the country that she’s still among the best players in the country.