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Sabrina Ionescu's Decision To Return To Oregon May Pay Off In March

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's March, and for college basketball fans, that means Madness is coming. When the women's tournament begins in a little over two weeks, the University of Oregon and star player Sabrina Ionescu will generate a lot of attention. She led the Ducks to the Final Four last season and was named national player of the year. Ionescu then delayed a pro career to return for her senior season, and it appears it was a good decision. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, the accolades keep growing for Ionescu on and off the court.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It could be argued one memorable day a week and a half ago justified Sabrina Ionescu's decision to come back for this final season. It started with her speaking to a worldwide audience about the former NBA legend who'd become her friend and mentor over the past year.

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SABRINA IONESCU: I grew up watching Kobe Bryant, game after game, ring after ring, living his greatness without apology. I wanted to be just like him.

GOLDMAN: Mere hours after she spoke at the memorial for Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, Ionescu played in a basketball game. And, as heard on ESPN, she did something no college player, woman or man, has ever done.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: She has just become the first player in Division I history with 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds.

GOLDMAN: That day, those watching Sabrina Ionescu saw uncommon poise and focus for a 22-year-old. Those who've watched her for years, like Oregon associate head coach Mark Campbell - not surprised.

MARK CAMPBELL: Her whole career and her whole life - every time there's been an opportunity to seize the moment, it's what she's done.

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IONESCU: Wow - the house that we built. This is crazy.

GOLDMAN: Coming back this year also allowed Ionescu to have a proper senior send-off. Last Sunday, after her final regular-season game, she stood on her home court in Eugene, Ore., and scanned the sellout crowd of more than 12,000. She and her teammates - she always mentions teammates - took a not-very-good women's team four years ago and made it elite.

Along the way, Ionescu evolved into an all-around generational college player. Among the records that tell her special tale - 26 career triple doubles, meaning games where she had double figures in points, rebounds and assists. Her 26 are 14 more than the next closest, a player on the men's team at BYU.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Basket's good - Ruthy Hebard.

GOLDMAN: Crowds cheer baskets, like this one from Oregon forward Ruthy Hebard on Sunday. They don't tend to cheer the pass that comes right before - the assist - meaning Sabrina Ionescu is seriously under-cheered. Yes, she scores and rebounds a lot, but Ionescu leads the NCAA in assists, something her legions of young female fans truly appreciate, like 12-year-old Grace Winebarger. She and her dad drove nearly 300 miles one way to watch Sunday's game.

GRACE WINEBARGER: I just like how she sees everything and, like, how she can visualize, like, what - how things are going to happen and stuff.

GOLDMAN: Oregon coach Campbell confirms - Ionescu's greatest skills are her passing and court vision. He was the first college coach to see that when she was a skinny ninth-grader in Walnut Creek, Calif., wearing, he remembers, a saggy basketball jersey.

CAMPBELL: It's not like the first time I saw her I said, there's the future of women's basketball. What you saw was a young kid that had just an incredible competitive spirit and a unique basketball IQ. That's a gift.

GOLDMAN: A gift honed by hard, hard work, which, Campbell says, Ionescu learned in part from her Romanian immigrant parents.

Her rise to the top of women's college basketball hasn't always been smooth. Her head coach at Oregon, Kelly Graves, told The Athletic Ionescu was a tough teammate early on. If someone didn't have the same level of commitment she did, she couldn't understand why. Now she's the Ducks' leader, fiery as ever on the court but deeply affected by Kobe Bryant's death. She spoke recently about her decision to return this season to complete unfinished business - winning a national championship.

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IONESCU: That was really the goal up until, obviously, a month ago. And then you kind of realize that there's so many more things that are important besides that final outcome. And nothing's really promised. Nothing's guaranteed.

GOLDMAN: Sabrina Ionescu has perspective, but she also has that thing - the rare ability to seize major moments. And that should give every upcoming tournament opponent cause for concern.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Eugene, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAFT PUNK SONG, "AROUND THE WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.