2014 Pac-12 Women's Basketball Tournament first round: USC outlasts pesky Arizona
SEATTLE – So much for a blowout.
In what looked on paper like the biggest mismatch of the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament’s first round, the No. 12-seeded Arizona Wildcats, winner of one conference game, nearly upset the No. 5-seeded USC Trojans Thursday at KeyArena.
USC eventually prevailed, 59-54, to advance to the quarterfinals and keep its glimmering hopes of making the NCAA tournament field alive. It was never easy. Not even close in a game that featured 12 lead changes.
“I thought we played tentative at some points in the first half,” said USC coach Cynthia Cooper. “We lost our focus defensively, but in the second half we played better defense, executed on the offensive end and got some key defensive stops.
“We didn’t play our best game, but I thought we played well enough to win.”
With 11:06 left, the Trojans trailed, 44-43, and were struggling to get stops on defense. Other than junior guard Ariya Crook, they weren’t in rhythm on offense.
Then they started feeding the post, a region where USC held the height advantage. The Trojans took a 45-44 lead they would never relinquish when Crook dished an assist to 6-foot-4 Kate Oliver for an easy layup.
It was a breakout day of sorts for Oliver, who in 15 minutes off the bench finished with 12 points on six-of-seven shooting and helped the Trojans outrebound the Wildcats, 41-30.
“I’m just happy to get out there and support my teammates and do what I can do to contribute,” said Oliver. “If that means more minutes here or less minutes there, I’m just happy to do my part.”
Leading 57-54 with about 30 seconds left, USC didn’t seal the win until Arizona guard Carissa Crutchfield’s runner hit every part of the rim before falling to the floor. Crook, who finished with 19 points, knocked in her ensuing pair of free throws.
The Trojans jumped to an 11-2 lead in the first four minutes with some hot shooting and by forcing Arizona into turnovers with pressure defense. Crook, who finished with four three-pointers, capped the run with a flat-footed hoist from 25 feet away. The Wildcats fought back with an 11-4 burst to narrow the score to 15-13, prompting USC coach Cynthia Cooper to call a timeout roughly ten minutes into the game.
[Related video: USC's Kate Oliver talks after first-round win over Arizona]
From there it went back-and-forth. The Wildcats took their first lead, 21-20, when Crutchfield swished an open three-pointer with 5:43 left in the first half. But USC’s Alexyz Vaioletama responded on the next Trojans’ possession by knocking in a jumper from the elbow. Arizona followed with a 9-3 run to take a surprising 30-25 lead into the locker room.
In the first half, Wildcats guard Kama Griffitts made five of eight shots, including three three-pointers, and led all scorers with 13 points, nearly four more than what she averaged per game during the regular season.
“I thought (she) was outstanding,” Arizona coach Niya Butts said. “She was knocking down shots, shooting the ball with confidence, the rest of the team was feeding off that energy. She sparked us, especially in that first half.”
In the first 20 minutes, Crook led USC with eight points on 11 shots, three of which came in the first 20 minutes.
Arizona used a sagging defense that emphasized protecting the paint to hold All Pac-12 forward Cassie Harberts to two points on 1-of-4 shooting in the first half. Harberts finished with six points and 11 rebounds in 39 minutes.
With the win, USC plays Friday at 2:30 at KeyArena against No. 4 seed Arizona State on Pac-12 Networks.