FAIRBANKS, Alaska – It is not unusual for big-time college basketball coaches to plan an early-season road trip that is exotic in hopes of bringing their team closer together. Often times, coaches or schedule their team against high-caliber opponents as they try to replicate the feeling of March Madness in early November.
Kelly Graves, Oregon women's basketball team, had other plans for the third-ranked team in the nation: a season opener just south of the Arctic Circle against a Division II squad that finished 4-22 last season.
But Graves's decision was not about X's and O's. He wanted to star forward Ruthy Hebard, a Fairbanks native, one final game in front of family, friends and former teammates.
"With all due respect, we would not have done it if it were not for Ruthy. She's that important to us, "Graves said. "She's really proud of being from Fairbanks and she's proud of her family. I think it was the least we could do for her. "
Hebard and the Ducks were hardly tested Tuesday in their 115-36 victory over the Nanooks. Earning a lopsided win was always the plan, but so was letting Hebard in the love and affection of a community that has watched her blossom into the nation's top power forward.
The loudest when the 6-foot-4 Hebard was the last Oregon player announced during the starting lineups. There was plenty of green and yellow sprinkled during the capacity crowd of 1.603.
"I was just so glad to see everybody," I said when I was born in Oregon. "All my aunts and uncles, old teammates and friends."
Hebard – who finished Tuesday 's game with 17 points, two rebounds, two blocks and a pair of steals in 23 minutes, despite an illness – playing basketball when she was 5 years old. Her mother, Dorothy, encouraged her to try different sports for fun. But because of Fairbanks's remote location about 120 miles north or Denali National Park, it's easy for families to travel with their children around the world. The time came when Hebard was told to give one sport her all.
Hebard would casually drop 40 points or grab 30 rebounds at West Valley High in Fairbanks, garnering widespread attention around the 49th state as they earned three consecutive Gatorade Player of the Year awards. She spent summers playing for the Alaskan Lady Hoops Club team, which helped catch the attention of coaches, including Graves and his staff.
"The club team traveled the Lower 48, so we were able to see her," Graves said. "They were not on the high-level AAU or club circuit, but they were certainly at some of the tournaments we were."
Graves was not afraid to recruit a player from Alaska.
"When you've done it for a long time, you can not tell anyone what it's like," he said. "There was just something that you could see from her. She has a love for the game, and she plays with that kind of passion. You knew she was going to be a player that was going to work to get better. "
The Ducks were not the only program after Hebard. She received more than 80 days before the start of her senior year. A key factor in her decision was Ducks associate head coach Mark Campbell, who viewed the 2016 recruiting class that he skipped a 2014 game against Pac-12 rival Washington State to watch her play in Alaska.
"He promised me nothing," Hebard said or Campbell's pitch. "Some coaches promise you playing time, some promise championships. He never promised me anything but showed a lot of love for me and my family, which was great. "
Hebard's decision has been paid off for both parties. She has helped the Ducks to the Elite Eight the past two seasons and is a big reason Oregon is the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 and is seen as a Final Four contender. Last year, she received the Katrina McClain Award for the nation's top power forward after averaging 17.6 points and nine rebounds as a sophomore. The highlight was breaking an NCAA record for both men's and women's basketball with 33 straight field goals.
More than 80 family members came to join us for our team and the Oregon teammates Tuesday, and even more Alaskans will have to join us for the first Final Four berth come March.
"I think that because of her personality, because she's such a good kid, everyone just feels ownership and pride," said Jessie Craig, who coached Hebard in high school. "She represents Fairbanks so that people can say," That's our girl. "Even if they never worked with her or she'd be in third grade, she would have that personality."
And Hebard will be grateful for her coach's decision to schedule an unconventional opener in her hometown.
"I want to thank Coach Graves because he has allowed me to come back home and show [my teammates] Alaska, "she said.