Utah has had some elite seasons in Elaine Elliott’s 27 years as a coach, including an Elite Eight appearance in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, 15 conference championships, and eight years with at least 24 wins.
It’s safe to say, though, that the Utes just wrapped up the biggest week in program history with an 84-78 win over Stanford on Saturday that clinched a share of their first Pac-12 regular season title.
They were also ranked a somewhat surprising No. 1 seed in the NCAAs during the selection committee’s second early reveal.
And they enter the Pac-12 tournament this week with their highest ranking (No. 2) and a lot of confidence after their second win over Stanford in school history. (The other was in 2019.)
“The atmosphere was incredible,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said of a raucous crowd of 9,611 at the Huntsman Center, the largest since a BYU game in 1993.
“This has been my dream and vision since I got here. I think it means so much to us because we beat Stanford. They’ve just been the elite program not just in our conference but in the country for years, and (we have) a lot of respect for them and the way they play and compete.”
Utah had never defeated an opponent ranked as highly as Stanford, which was No. 3 in the Associated Press poll. (Eighth place Utes made it to 4th place.)
For Stanford, playing its third game against a top 25 opponent in six days—also encountered major travel problems from Boulder to Salt Lake City—proved too grueling. The Cardinal needed double overtime on Thursday to beat No. 21 Colorado, and All-America Haley Jones played the entire 50 minutes.
The effects showed against Utah. Jones had one point in the first half and three in the third quarter. The Utes, leading by seven at halftime, were never trailing in the second half, although the Cardinals were up by one with 2:29 left.
Gianna Kneepkens hit a 3-pointer on timeout to give the Utes room to breathe. They went 6-of-6 on free throws in the final 33 seconds to clinch a season split with Stanford.
“It was a tough road for us towards the end of the season,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. “Our team struggled. We were right there, it could have gone either way. I hope that makes us very hungry for the Pac-12 tournament.”
Stanford Tournament #1 Seed
Despite the loss in Salt Lake City, the Cardinal will be the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament because of their 2-0 record against third-place Colorado. (Utah split the season series with CU.)
The Pac-12 has five seeded teams, but only the top four seeded teams receive opening round byes. UCLA lost the tiebreaker for fourth place and is expected to play on Wednesday.
Although four of the ranked teams lost at least once in the last week of the regular season, the tournament pairings came out the same way they were starting the week:
– At the. 5 UCLA vs. At the. 12 Arizona State (winner plays No. 4 Arizona)
– At the. 8 Washington vs. At the. 9 Oregon (winner plays No. 1 Stanford)
— #7 Washington State vs. #10 California (winner plays #2 Utah)
– At the. 6 USC vs. At the. 11 Oregon State (winner plays No. 3 Colorado)
Stanford is the two-time champion of the tournament, with 15 conference titles in total. The Cardinal beat Utah by 25 points in last year’s final.
Arguably the most dangerous opening-day team is Oregon, who are coming off wins over Arizona (73-59) and ASU (77-48) that made their seven-game losing streak a thing of the past. The Ducks could still be without rookie Grace VanSlooten (ankle injury), although she was without boots on Saturday.
“Right now, we’re without Grace,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves. “I wasn’t told she’s coming in a day or two or anything like that. We’re just thinking that we’ll have to play with the group we had this weekend and then hope for the best.
Arizona also lost at Oregon State (78-70). The winless week came at the worst of times after the Wildcats were listed as the fourth seed by the selection committee in their opening reveal.
They need a big comeback in Las Vegas for a chance to host the NCAA first and second rounds. The Beavers snapped a nine-game losing streak with the upset.
Player of the Year: Pili or Brink?
There were two Pac-12 Players of the Year for the 2021-22 season, both from Stanford: Jones was a coaches’ pick; Cameron Brink was the media’s choice.
A split is also possible this season given the small perceived gap between Brink and Utah’s Alissa Pili.
Winners of all postseason awards and teams from all conferences will be announced prior to the tournament.
Pili is the Pac-12’s leading scorer (20.6 points per game) and leads in field goal percentage (. 599). She is also in the top 20 for rebounding (5.5 per game).
Brink ranks in the top 10 in scoring (14.5) and rebounds (9.4) and is second nationally in blocks (109).
Roberts’ pitch for Pili, a transfer from USC, is “his efficiency, his value to our team.
“If you look at the effective field goal percentage, attempted points per shot, rebound, defense, I don’t think that’s an argument in terms of team value. I think she is the most important person on the team and the most valuable.”
ASU avoids Pac-12 winless record
Arizona State’s long-awaited first Pac-12 victory under first-year head coach Natasha Adair was a microcosm of her season, with a critical twist.
Trailing Oregon State by 10 points at halftime on Thursday, the Sun Devils were trailed 9–2 early in the third quarter.
But in contrast to so many previous games, they didn’t wait long to bounce back as Tyi Skinner had 15 points in the third quarter. There were seven lead changes in the fourth quarter before ASU broke through for good when Skinner fed Jaddan Simmons for a 3-pointer from a corner with 1:47 left.
The Sun Devils were 8-of-8 on free throws in the fourth quarter and made all 14 overall – their most clean-throws since 2008 – in what became a 75-73 victory. The result kept them from joining Washington State (in 2001–02) as the only team to win no conference play.
“There was a time when we could have put our heads down and felt sorry for ourselves, but we didn’t,” Adair said in a post-match radio interview. “I didn’t see fear in your eyes.”
ASU’s comeback was the second-largest in school history, trailing only a famous 18-point fourth-quarter rally against Utah in 2019.
Skinner produced his 14th game with at least 20 points, shooting 5-of-6 from 3-point range. He finished with 27.
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