EUGENE, Ore. -- There were nearly three times as many people inside Matthew Knight Arena to watch Oregon host Stanford on Thursday as showed up when the Cardinal came to town four seasons ago.
Stanford hasn't changed much in that time, Final Four contenders then and now. So, no, it wasn't a visit from Pac-12 royalty that filled the stands. And at least as much as the final score in No. 6 Oregon's 87-55 win against No. 3 Stanford, those 12,218 voices told the story of Sabrina Ionescu's impact on the program.
The only problem was that it didn't look like all that much had changed after the first quarter, as the Ducks trailed by four points, not quite up to the new standards that Ionescu established.
But those weren't the minutes that mattered in the end. Ionescu -- who was magnificent with a career-high 37 points as well as 11 rebounds and 7 assists -- made sure of it on a night when she became the program's all-time leading scorer by playing one of her best games.
And that's not a short list.
"She seems to always do it on nights like this, too," Oregon coach Kelly Graves said. "When her best is needed, that's when she usually steps up. I know sometimes with some opponents she just isn't as ready mentally or that into it. But in games like this, she just has that other level to go to. And thank goodness. But I thought the rest of the team went with her."
Ionescu lifted the standard in the final 20 minutes. She has lifted it for four years.
Oregon lost to Louisville on a neutral court in November and lost its No. 1 ranking. It lost a week ago at unranked Arizona State and lost its chance to reclaim the top spot in the polls.
On this court, in this arena where fans flocked to watch them beat Team USA to begin the season, the Ducks didn't always play flawless basketball. Even amid what their star called their best game of the season, they showed some of the same flaws, in fact, that raise questions about their title hopes in such a crowded field of contenders.
So maybe they didn't earn the No. 1 ranking back in one night. But they made darned sure they didn't lose the game. They haven't lost many in the Ionescu era.
Led as almost always by its senior star, Oregon recorded its first win this season against a top-10 opponent.
Ionescu became the first player in 20 seasons to reach 30 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists against a top-five opponent. She had 29 points in the first three quarters, most when Oregon desperately needed them.
"(Stanford is) the standard of excellence," Ionescu said. "Game in and game out that I've played them in my career, that's who I want to beat. Especially coming from the Bay Area and growing up with them in my backyard and then choosing to leave and come here, it's awesome to be able to play them."
But that familiar story can't overshadow how much the Ducks worked for this win.
A year ago, Oregon beat Stanford by 40 points in the regular season. Everything worked that day in Palo Alto, California. Little went right early in Thursday's game.
Ionescu salutes after reaching career-high 37 points
Sabrina Ionescu records a career high after hitting a jump shot to get up to 37 points for the game.
Erin Boley missed a 3-pointer on Oregon's opening possession. Ionescu missed one of her own a couple of minutes later. Satou Sabally did the same soon after that. Oregon made 12-of-16 3-point attempts when it routed Stanford in the regular season a year ago. The Ducks missed their first seven 3-point attempts against the Cardinal on Thursday.
They trailed 17-13 at the end of the first quarter, their 13 points their lowest total in an opening period this season, and the second game in a row they trailed after the first quarter.
"If this had happened a few years ago we'd probably start getting nervous," Ionescu said. "Now I think we're just veteran and we understand that it's a 40-minute game. Definitely at the beginning we were feeling how they were playing defense. I had taken some bad shots, and [Graves] had told me that as well. I think just getting it to the second and third side of the floor and seeing how the defense played, and once we settled down, we were rolling on offense."
The 3-point misses were the most frustrating and the most telling. Oregon entered the game shooting 36% from the 3-point line -- good by most measures but far off the 41.5% pace it set a season ago. The shooters are largely the same, but whether it's Boley, Ionescu, Sabally or someone else, the shots just haven't fallen with the same regularity this season.
Without the 3-pointer, Oregon is a vulnerable team offensively, especially against Louisville, Stanford and the teams the Ducks want to be playing in New Orleans in April. There isn't as much room for Ionescu to operate in off the dribble if her kick-out passes to shooters don't punish opponents quite as often. There isn't as much room for Hebard to go to work on the block.
That has to come back for the Ducks to be the best team in the land. That's what makes them better than everyone else.
"We have adjusted -- we're being a lot more patient, we're not just settling for a quick 3," Graves said. "We're getting a little bit more inside. If you look at how many times we're getting to the free-throw line the last six, eight games, it's really trending up. We're being more aggressive. The 3 is still a big part of our game, but we're not making it the most important part of our game. That's when we're at our best. We've never been a volume 3-point shooting team. We were early in the season, but I think we figured that out a little bit."
Yet there is some volume. They ranked seventh a season ago in 3-pointers per game. They rank ninth this season, but only by attempting more per game. Against Louisville and Arizona State (not to mention in a few close wins), they struggled for answers. Thursday they improvised.
Pushing the ball upcourt midway through the third quarter, Moore could have kicked to Sabally on the wing for an open 3-pointer. She chose instead to keep driving to the basket, absorbing the contact when fouled and earning two points the hard way from the free-throw line.
Minutes later, rather than showing the range that makes her such a brilliant WNBA prospect, Sabally fought for an offensive rebound on an Ionescu heave as the shot clock expired, drew the foul as she made the putback and finished a 3-point play from the free-throw line.
The Ducks finished with a pedestrian eight 3-pointers, everyone but Ionescu combining to make just 3-of-12 attempts. But they had more rebounds, fewer turnovers and more free-throw attempts than Stanford.
They played what Graves called their best defense of the season.
And they had Ionescu, who saluted everyone in attendance after hitting a step-back jumper for her final points and exiting the game in the final minutes. She admitted later that she was offering a, shall we say, cheeky salute to the Cardinal.
On Thursday it was enough to beat an elite team by 32 points.
"That's the best game we've played this year," Ionescu said.