The COVID pandemic robbed Oregon’s 2020-21 freshman class of so many experiences. But that quartet of Ducks has spent this spring making up for lost time, and this weekend they’ll have a chance to see just how far they’ve progressed since the end of the season.
Te-Hina Paopao, Sydney Parrish, Maddie Scherr and Kylee Watson will represent Oregon in the 2021 Redbull USA Basketball 3X Nationals this weekend at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. The Ducks are defending national champions in the 3×3 format; the quartet of Erin Boley, Oti Gildon, Ruthy Hebard and Sabrina Ionescu won the national championship in 2018, and Gildon, Hebard, Ionescu and Lydia Giomi followed it up with another title in 2019.
The 2020 event was cancelled due to the pandemic, a minor upheaval compared with the other challenges Oregon’s freshman class faced last season. But the second-year Ducks have been able to enjoy a more typical offseason of workouts and training since reaching the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament in March, and they’ll put that development to the test this weekend in the 3×3 tournament.
“That was the hardest thing about having to deal with COVID last year, is not really being able to get to know each other,” Watson said. “We came in with so many new girls. Having us here now playing together, being in the facilities, being able to come to the coaches’ offices, it’s all been so helpful. Our chemistry is so strong now.”
Watson and Parrish have experience playing together in the 3×3 format, at a national team camp while they were in high school. The format is new to Scherr and Paopao, who have had to adjust to the halfcourt setup, the scoring system of ones and twos, and the reduced shot clock.
Gildon, who is now the program’s interim director of creativity/student-athlete support, has helped them learn the format.
“It’s so different; we were so confused on the subbing, the rules, the time, the scoring,” Paopao said. “The first time we played it was hilarious, because we had no idea what we were doing. But as time went on we’ve gotten better, so I’m excited to see what happens.”
The Ducks have seen progress already, in recent scrimmages against friends — including some older, bigger men’s players.
“We were like, oh man, this is gonna be tough,” Scherr said. “But we ended up beating them most of the times we played. Which was awesome.”
The weekend tournament begins with preliminary rounds Saturday. Based on those results, the teams will be seeded for the knockout rounds Sunday.
“I think we have a big target on our back,” Parrish said. “Because they know we’re one of the younger teams. So I’m excited.”
The quartet of second-year Ducks has been together much of the spring, strengthening their bonds on and off the court. Veterans Sedona Prince and Nyara Sabally have been out of town pursuing national team spots — Sabally in Germany, Prince with the USA Basketball team that begins competition for the AmeriCup on Friday in Puerto Rico.
Parrish said the second-year players have taken advantage of their time together, using their key cards to access Matthew Knight Arena and get in voluntary workouts to supplement the time they’re allowed with coaches. That’s a luxury they couldn’t enjoy in the midst of the pandemic’s heights last year.
“We’ve been coming in as often as we can,” Parrish said. “And the new coaching staff” — including new assistants Jackie Nared Hairston and Mike Moser — “has really helped us. They love being on the court with us, so it’s been really good.”
Scherr said the 3×3 tournament will be “a good mechanism to feel each other out,” in that the format rewards individual creativity. The Ducks can watch how their teammates like to play with that kind of freedom, which will inform how they operate as a team once the 2021-22 season begins.
The tournament will also be a nice break from the repetition of their recent workout schedules.
“We’ve definitely been on that scheduled routine for a while now — weights, workouts, weights, workouts,” Scherr said. “So whenever we get the chance to be competitive, even in the workouts, we’re excited.”
That routine has also been broken up since the start of June by the presence of recruits, who could begin taking on-campus visits as of this month.
After playing in the 3×3 tournament this weekend, the Ducks will spend some time at their respective homes before returning to Eugene in July. So in some ways the event feels like a bridge between last season and next.
“It’s kind of like a conclusion, but it also feels like — with the recruits coming in — like a flash forward to the future,” Watson said. “The end of the COVID era — hopefully, knock on wood — and just really getting excited for next year.”