The inside story of Sabrina Ionescu's decision to return to Oregon for her senior season

Sabrina Ionescu transformed the Ducks into national contenders. Then she helped give them their first No. 1 ranking with her decision to return for her senior year. Eric Evans Photography

This story was originally posted on Oct. 31, 2019, before the 2019-20 women's college basketball season opened. On Saturday, Oregon senior Sabrina Ionescu and the top-ranked Ducks became just the second college team to defeat the U.S. women's national team. Ionescu had 30 points in the 93-86 exhibition win in front of 11,530 fans at Oregon's Matthew Knight Arena.

It's a stretch to say Oregon coach Kelly Graves saw the Ducks' 2019-20 season hanging in the balance.

No matter what happened in the hours that followed April's Final Four loss against Baylor, Oregon was always going to begin this season with at least a pair of prospective first-round picks and a lineup that could compete in the Pac-12 and beyond.

But as Graves left Tampa, Florida, on the morning of April 6, the coach understood that the defining moment of a season still months away would arrive within hours. Without Sabrina Ionescu, the point guard whose exploits earned the attention of even NBA royalty, Oregon would be good. The Ducks, fresh off their first Final Four, would probably begin the season in the top 10. Oregon would be able to hold its own with Oregon State and Stanford in the conference. It might even snag a No. 2 or No. 3 seed come March.

The Ducks would be good enough to beat many. But they wouldn't be the team to beat.

More than that, they wouldn't be the team everyone needed to see. Only one player guaranteed that.

The vast expanse of America that his plane raced over that April morning has rarely been as familiar with or entranced by a women's basketball player as it is with Ionescu. And Graves knew the deadline was fast approaching for the NCAA record holder for triple-doubles to decide whether she would enter the WNBA draft or return to Oregon for her final season of eligibility.

He just didn't know what Ionescu's answer was going to be.

"I flew home with my family not knowing at that point what she was going to do," Graves said. "I didn't know during that time period who had her ear, who she was talking to, who was trying to influence her one way or the other. That's a scary position to be in as a coach."

Hours later, at home, his sons relayed reports then circulating on Twitter. She was leaving.

Spoiler alert: She wasn't.

As everyone learned in dramatic fashion last April, and as Oregon's No. 1 ranking and Ionescu's honors -- she's the espnW preseason player of the year -- confirm now, college basketball's biggest star chose to remain college basketball's biggest star for another season. The moments leading up to that decision are proof Ionescu keeps a secret as adeptly as she shares the ball. Because, as Graves knows better than anyone, they are also the moments that will shape an entire season.

"She's got a flair for the dramatic, doesn't she?" Graves mused of a player who also committed to Oregon by arriving on campus unannounced in June 2016 and handing the coach the necessary paperwork.

In his living room on that Saturday last April, the disappointment at her possible departure was fleeting. As he recalls it, no more than a minute passed between when his sons told him about the reports that she had decided to forgo her final season and the phone call from Ionescu that confirmed the opposite. It was around the same time she sent the text message to teammates to let them know she was returning.

Only minutes later, the timetable pushed up by the initial incorrect report, The Players' Tribune published Ionescu's "Letter to Ducks Nation" informing everyone else of her decision.

"They didn't find out much sooner than the rest of the world did," Ionescu said of her teammates and coaches. "I think a lot of the team felt certain that I was going to come back, just because of our relationships together. But obviously no one really knew."

With Ionescu, who averaged 19.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 8.2 assists last season and has 18 career triple-doubles, everything revolves around Oregon this season. Even by conservative standards, Oregon has three of the 10 to 15 best players in the country with Ionescu, senior forward Ruthy Hebard and junior forward Satou Sabally reunited. No other contender can match that, which helps explain why the Ducks, despite missing out on the championship game, received 25 of 28 first-place votes to earn their first No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 on Wednesday.

Ionescu recalls with some fondness that fans early in her time in Eugene occasionally asked her to take photos -- not to be part of them, mind you, but for her to literally press the button on the camera and take pictures when they encountered the team. They assumed she was a manager. It sounds doubtful. She was, after all, a star recruit. Then again, her first home game drew a little more than 2,000 fans. The Ducks averaged a figure approaching four times that last season.

Life has changed a great deal for someone who now rarely goes out for coffee in Eugene without a flurry of requests for selfies with her. She is the center of attention in that town and recognizable throughout much of the basketball world. That is flattering, and not just when Kobe Bryant breaks down your game. It is also intense, which partly explains why she kept so much of her decision-making process to herself.

"I didn't want to get the team involved, just because I didn't want that to be their worry," said Ionescu, a consensus first-team All-American last season who also won the Wade Trophy and Wooden Award as the national player of the year. "I just wanted them to be able to focus on themselves and our team and basketball."

That mostly included Graves, too. He said they talked about her impending decision only a few times -- and not at all after Ionescu initiated a conversation entering the stretch run.

"We had, not a 'Coming to Jesus' meeting, but we had a serious discussion kind of midway through the Pac-12," Graves said. "I think maybe she felt like I was concerned about it and maybe had said some stupid things -- and I could have in the media, I don't recall that. At that time, I think she was just probably feeling a little bit of pressure, as was I, from where we were in the season and how we were playing and where we thought we were heading."

That The Players' Tribune letter was ready to publish is enough to suggest Ionescu waited until the last minute to be sure she was content with the decision, as opposed to making the decision itself only in those final minutes. But it was a decision she wanted time and space to consider, in consultation with her high school coach and adviser Kelly Sopak. There wasn't anything she could have told Graves before then.

"It was in the back of my mind, but I really wasn't contemplating that -- that wasn't where my focus was while I was playing," Ionescu said. "I had weighed out the pros and cons, but it kind of always was just this thing that was there in the back of my mind. And I wasn't going to sit down and process everything until I was done playing.

"After we lost [in the Final Four], I didn't have a lot of hours to decide, so that's when I was able to try and sit down and figure out what I wanted -- although there were so many emotions coming from the loss."

While Graves returned to Oregon after the team lost on a Friday, she and some of the other Oregon players and coaches remained in Tampa with their families. There Ionescu -- eligible for the WNBA draft because she will turn 22 in December -- tried to plot her course ahead of the looming Monday deadline to enter the draft.

"I think it's unfortunate that the WNBA puts these young women in that position," Graves said. "To say let's make a decision on your future in 48 hours, I don't think that's fair."

Nor did it afford him time to devise much of a plan for the scenario no one in Oregon wanted to contemplate. Graves said the Ducks would have pursued a graduate transfer to handle some of the load if Ionescu had left, but they ultimately went that route anyway by adding USC transfer Minyon Moore. They had also already signed Jaz Shelley, a freshman guard from Australia with an impressive international résumé.

Beyond that, Graves said, there really wasn't a Plan B. There was simply Oregon with Ionescu and Oregon without her. The same could be said for all of college basketball.

With Ionescu, Moore can settle in as a ridiculously well qualified complementary asset and Shelley and Morgan Yaeger can worry about replacing Maite Cazorla, admittedly also no easy task, instead of replacing Ionescu.

So a day before Baylor and Notre Dame settled one season, Graves and his family arrived home and waited to find out whether Eugene and its star would be at the center of the college basketball solar system this season.

"It was on the top of my mind the entire day, believe me," Graves said. "We went about our daily stuff, but whatever we did that day, we didn't get much done. We were all anticipating her decision. I won't lie to you, I was concerned and uneasy the entire time."

For a moment, they feared the worst. And then the phone rang.

"My wife, my three boys and me, we were hootin' and hollerin' and really excited," Graves said. "It was kind of a surreal 24 to 30 hours."