PORTLAND — Oti Gildon sat in front of her locker in Moda Center still in her game uniform late Friday night, marveling at how quickly it has all gone by.
The Oregon women’s basketball team had just defeated South Dakota State to advance to its third Elite Eight in as many years. And with her elbows rested on her knees, Gildon reflected on the advice of former Ducks’ teammate Jillian Alleyne.
“Don’t take anything for granted,” Gildon recalled Alleyne telling her when she was a freshman. “And I’m like, yeah, yeah, whatever. But looking at it now it’s like, wow.”
And what a ride it has been for Gildon, the former Gonzaga Prep star. She will finish her college basketball career this weekend tied as the winningest player in program history when Oregon takes on fellow No. 1 seed Baylor in the Final Four.
It was a ride that began with trust in a coach, and a bond forged by longevity.
The list of Gildon’s prospective colleges could have been long, but in the end her decision didn’t take much ruminating.
A five-star recruit and ESPN’s 37th ranked player in the country, Gildon was recruited by several of the top college programs in the country. But she committed to the University of Oregon for one reason: head coach Kelly Graves.
And the feeling was mutual. In Gildon, Graves saw her as the first piece to building the program into a power.
“‘She’s a culture creator,” Graves told the Spokesman-Review at the time. She was also the highest-ranked recruit the program had ever landed.
That trust she put in Graves has paid off. Four years later, Oregon is in the NCAA women’s Final Four for the first time in program history. The No. 2 seed Ducks play Baylor on Friday at 4 p.m. in Tampa Bay, Florida.
Gildon’s career has encapsulated the program’s rise from a middling Pac-12 team that had not finished in the top half of the Pac-12 in over a decade, to one of the nation’s best teams. And she was one of the first pieces of that ascent.
But that’s not the way she saw it. She just wanted to play for Graves.
“Honestly I think I would have followed him anywhere,” Gildon said. “If he was going to be at Gonzaga, I’d probably be at Gonzaga. I trusted him. I went to high school with all of his kids, so I’ve known him, grew up going to the camp and I really trusted him and I saw what he was able to do to Gonzaga, and I’m happy I followed him here.”
Gildon and Graves first met at a Gonzaga camp for AAU teams when she was an eighth grader, not long after she moved to Spokane from Gary, Indiana. Graves was head coach of the Gonzaga women’s program, where he built it into a perennial NCAA Tournament mainstay over 14 seasons.
For many of Graves’ best Gonzaga teams, Gildon was watching. She recalls seeing Courtney Vandersloot and Heather Bowman play, and rooting the team to multiple Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight.
As a sophomore at Gonzaga Prep, Gildon’s profile began to rise. That’s when Graves began recruiting her.
Gildon would help lead Gonzaga Prep to back-to-back Washington high school 4A state championships during her junior and senior year, playing alongside Laura Stockton, who went on to have a successful career at Gonzaga, and Oona Harrington. At the time, coach Mike Arte told reporters Gildon was the most gifted post player he’s coached in his nearly three decades at Prep.
But at the end of Gildon’s junior year, Graves left Gonzaga for Oregon — greener pastures in scenery and athletic department resources, rather than wins and losses, perhaps — and asked Gildon to join him.
But Oregon didn’t have the same documented success as Gonzaga. Graves knew that, and didn’t sugarcoat it.
“He was honest with me,” Gildon said. “He was like, ‘I don’t know, I’m not going to sell you a dream, I don’t know what I’m walking into myself.’ ”
She was following him, regardless.
In Graves’ first year at Oregon, the team posted a 6-12 Pac-12 record and he admitted to the Spokesman-Review at the time that the program was “in worse shape than he thought.”
Things began to turn during Gildon’s freshman year, though she played a minimal role off the bench — 2.9 points, 2.0 rebounds in 9.4 minutes per game. The team made the WNIT semifinals and posted a winning record (23-14) for the first time in seven seasons.
As a sophomore, with the arrival of Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard as freshmen, the Ducks made the NCAA Tournament as a No. 10 seed, where they knocked off three higher-seeds before losing in the Elite Eight. Last season, they returned to the Elite Eight as a No. 2 seed.
Gildon played extended minutes off the bench during Oregon’s Sweet 16 win over South Dakota State on Friday night at the Moda Center in Portland and did a little bit of everything — a steal here, a put-back there.
“What do you say about her? One of my favorite student-athletes of all time,” Graves said the day before Oregon’s Sweet 16 game.
When Oregon’s season ends and Gildon pursues a professional career, the bond between coach and player, which is going on almost a decade, won’t be lost on either of them.
“It was crazy just knowing him from middle school until now; he loves me, he trusts me,” Gildon said. “He’s always like, ‘Oti, thank you for coming here, we couldn’t sell you anything but you stuck with it.’ He’s like family.”
Correction: this story has been corrected to identify the Oregon women’s basketball team as a 2-seed. A previous version of this story identified the team as a 1-seed.