LAS VEGAS – For most conferences, having the top four eliminated before the league tournament final would be a disaster.
For the Pac-12, it’s perceived almost as a badge of honor — validating, internally at least, that conference depth is at an all-time high and that there’s nothing alarming about two teams projected as the No. NCAA losing in a quarterfinal (Utah) and semifinal (Stanford).
Stanford failed to make the finals for the first time in seven years, losing 69-65 to UCLA on Friday, its fourth loss to a non-Pac-12 opponent for the first time since 2017-18.
“We didn’t get the nets we wanted here, but there are still nets to cut in the NCAA tournament,” guard Agnes Emma-Nnopu said after Stanford’s second loss in six days.
The Cardinal is still projected by ESPN as the #1 seed in the NCAAs, while regular season co-champion Utah dropped to the #2 seed line after a 66-58 loss to the state of Washington on Thursday.
The long-awaited third rubber game between Stanford and Utah turned into a Sunday final between No. 5 UCLA and No. 7 Washington State, the lowest-ranked finalist in the tournament’s 22-year history. Both survived three games to reach the final, another tournament first.
Also trailing along the way were #3 Colorado, 61-49 to Washington State on Friday, and #4 Arizona, 73-59 to UCLA on Thursday.
“To me, each of us could win games in the NCAA Tournament,” said Oregon State head coach Scott Rueck. “The way Arizona State (8-20) ended the year, they could probably win a tournament game as well. There is not a Pac-12 team that is not worthy.”
Oregon State, number 11, managed one of six record losses in the first three days at the Mandalay Bay Michelob Ultra Arena. Others were from UCLA and Washington State (two each) and No. 9 seed Oregon.
To say that there were no alarm bells going off for the highest ranked losers would be an understatement. Arizona coach Adia Barnes went down to Geno Auriemma levels with criticism after her team’s third consecutive loss costing the Wildcats a chance at NCAA first/second round hosting.
“I can’t make you dive for balls,” Barnes said. “I can say that you will lose if you don’t, but I can’t play for you, so it’s difficult as a coach. I can’t control it. So what I can do is try to put different lineups together. I can change defense on the ball, but I can’t make you box.
“If we throw our asses and fight and dive and do all the little things and lose a game, I can take that. I cannot accept the mentality of not fighting and not wanting to win.”
Mostly, though, there’s a confidence from Pac-12 coaches that being battle-tested for the NCAA stage is a good thing and that with rest will come success when subregional play begins on March 17th.
Stanford, Utah, UCLA, Colorado, Arizona, Washington State and USC are expected to qualify for the NCAA. Oregon would make a eight-man Pac-12 record in the NCAA’s 68-team field, which will be announced March 12. Stanford, Utah and maybe UCLA will host NCAA first/second round games.
“I think the last five weeks have been really challenging for our team,” coach Tara VanDerveer said of Stanford, with six of its last eight regular season games away from home. “What our team can benefit from the most is a little rest. We’ll take at least three days off and let people cool off.
“We have to fix some things, there is no doubt. But this is an incredibly competitive conference. So we are prepared for the NCAA based on what we did in the Pac-12.”
Since the 2015-16 season, the Pac-12 has led the nation in Final Four appearances (seven), NCAA wins (76) and NCAA winning percentage (. 685). Stanford was national champion in 2021, beating Arizona in the final. But as of 2022, only Stanford – out of six qualifiers – has reached the Sweet Sixteen, and three teams have lost in the first round.
So no matter how deep the Pac-12 looks on paper, ultimate success for this season is yet to be determined.
Cougars win first Pac-12 women’s title in any sport
Washington State finished the job Sunday with a 65-61 victory over UCLA, clinching the school’s first Pac-12 women’s title in any sport. The Cougars are tied for the second-lowest seed to win a major conference women’s basketball tournament title, second only to Auburn’s 1997 SEC Championship as the 9th seed.
“It’s just proof that anything is possible,” said WSU head coach Kamie Ethridge, reiterating what Cougars head football coach Jake Dickert told his team. “If you get the right people who believe, work and are committed to each other, you can accomplish amazing things together.”
Ethridge, a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame for her playing career, was a longtime assistant coach before beginning her head coaching career at Northern Colorado (2014-18). She now has Washington State at unimaginable heights thanks to elite international recruiting and player development.
The championship game was the third meeting against UCLA. The Cougars lost 73-66 on January 22, the last game point guard Charlisse Leger-Walker missed on a trip home to New Zealand due to her grandmother’s illness and subsequent funeral. The Cougars won the rematch 62-55 on Feb. 25 with Leger-Walker, then won the rubber game largely thanks to Leger-Walker’s 23 points and Bella Murekatete’s 21.
Neither team led by more than eight points. There were 13 lead changes, the last at the end of the third quarter. Aside from a tie early in the fourth, WSU held the lead throughout the final period with Murekatete and Leger-Walker adding 14 points.
“The most important thing for us was being able to stay in the moment and not let things escalate too much or get too caught up in what was going on,” said Leger-Walker, named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after scoring a record 76 points. “The experience we have in our team now and the leadership we have helps a lot with that.
“Every timeout, or every time we got back on the court, there was something being said like we had this. We just need to focus on this play here, focus on our next play or just stay positive, stick together. All the little things we say to each other to keep us in the moment.”
A driving layup by UCLA’s Kiki Rice ended with 15 seconds left and the Bruins were down three. They maintained possession, then Astera Tuhina partially blocked a 3-point attempt by Charisma Osborne that ended UCLA’s hopes of their first Pac-12 title since 2006.
Tuhina, a freshman from Kosovo, was also instrumental in the victory with six points, six assists and her save against either Rice or Osborne.
“If we have enough mental errors or possession errors, it’s very hard to recover from that, and we had too many today to walk away with a win,” said UCLA head coach Cori Close. “We always say you must choose the pain of regret or the pain of discipline, and now we will have to learn from some of the pain of regret.”
Others on the all-tournament team were Murekatete, Osborne of UCLA, Rice and Emily Bessoir, and Cameron Brink of Stanford.
No moment defined the tournament more than Leger-Walker’s 3-pointer against Utah, which rallied from 19 points late in the third quarter to three with 39 seconds remaining.
Out of timeout, the All-American dribbled the clock to 10 seconds, made a play inside the arc and passed to Ula Motuga, who returned the ball with enough space for Leger-Walker to hit a long trey with 8.6 seconds left. .
“This is what greatness looks like,” said Mary Murphy, an analyst at the Pac-12 Network.
Leger-Walker doled out the credit after Washington State’s first victory over a No. 1 ranked opponent. 3.
“I knew I was coming back (from Motuga), so I knew I had to get it out quick and just shoot it, really,” she said. “I am so glad I joined. Obviously in those moments, you know, it’s a big moment, but the plays that we made before that, the runs that we had in that third quarter and then carrying that momentum into the fourth, that’s what really got us that win.”
Utes shows wear and tear after Stanford win
Pac-12 scoring leader Alissa Pili said her season-ending ankle injury was not a reason for her off against Washington State, although she didn’t look like herself. “I just didn’t play well,” she said.
The Utes clearly missed point guard Issy Palmer, who was sidelined with a leg injury, and forwards Jenna Johnson and Dasia Young were in trouble.
“It screwed up our pace,” said Utes coach Lynne Roberts. “Gianna (Kneepkens) had to command the point guard when (Ines) Vieira was away. She can do that, but that’s not her natural position for us. We choked a little on that.”
Stanford’s Pili and Cameron Brink and Haley Jones are among the 15 finalists for the Madeira National Player of the Year Award. The list will be narrowed down on March 29th, with the winner announced in April.
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