Pac-12 Postseason Storylines: Teams in Sweet 16 mindset

Eric Evans Photography

The Oregon State Beavers have spent much of the season playing to atone for last year’s second-round loss in the NCAA Tournament on their home floor. It has motivated them, it has pushed them, it has changed them.

But it won’t define them, said coach Scott Rueck.

“We showed up,” Rueck said of his team’s big weekend in Corvallis, the second-seeded Beavers having little trouble beating both Troy and St. Bonaventure. “There was relief in the fact that we played well, that this group got a win in their last game on their home floor. It was basically senior day for us, and I loved the fact that we played well and were able to win.”

Rueck said he “doesn’t care” about what happened last season.

“Everybody wants to put so much on last year,” Rueck said. “But this year we did what we should have done, and we played well and I’m really pleased.”

The Beavers succeeded by doing what they do best, playing stifling defense. They allowed a total of 71 points in two games last weekend. Thirty one of OSU’s opponents this season have failed to shoot better than 40 percent from the floor against them.

“We are keeping our focus on the defensive end of the floor,” Rueck said. “Now we just need to do more of the same.”

For the second time in program history and first since 1983, Oregon State moves into the NCAA Sweet 16. They are headed to Dallas to face a talented DePaul team on Saturday. This will be the first-ever matchup between the two teams.

The Beavers are going to keep things routine.

“There are some things that might look and feel different,” Rueck said. “But the game is the game. We will minimize distractions and keep things the same.

“I don’t think anybody is satisfied with what we’ve done. I look at where we are as a great opportunity. We’ve had great learning experiences and we are going to be prepared for whatever we are going to see.”

Washington plays with heart

The Washington Huskies are still playing, and Mike Neighbors is still standing on the sidelines coaching his team.

This time next month, Neighbors will be sidelined in a different way, but hoping to have the memories of his team’s impressive run through the tournament to keep his mind occupied.

Neighbors will enter the hospital next month to have a heart procedure to make sure that his heart – which has already needed repair after two heart attacks by the time he was 36 – is still going strong.

Neighbors had his first heart attack as a 29-year-old high school coach.

“I had a weird afternoon where I didn’t feel right,” Neighbors said. “It turned out it was a heart attack. I have a family history and it’s a genetic thing.”

Neighbors had a major blockage in his artery known as the “widowmaker”. He had two stents put in.

His second happened when he was 36 years old, and an assistant coach at Xavier. He had two more stents inserted into the arteries in his heart.

“After I had that first one, it made me decide that I wanted to be a college coach,” Neighbors said. “I didn’t want to stay in a place where I was chasing the thought that I might do it.”

Neighbors said that he will need to undergo surgery again in April to check on the condition of the stents and perhaps reinforce them.

“When I had the first ones put in at 29. They hadn’t been around long at that point,” Neighbors said. “They were made for people who were 70-75. They weren’t necessarily made to sustain the next 40 years of somebody’s life.”

Neighbors said he is feeling well.

“I’ve had no episodes or any warning,” Neighbors said. “I feel good.”

His Huskies certainly have a lot to do with that, particularly after the Maryland win that put UW in the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001, making Washington the talk of women’s basketball for the past few days.

“Our group thought they could win and I thought they played like it from tip to buzzer, and that was really cool,” Neighbors said. “Now we just need to do the same thing against Kentucky. Come back and do it all again. We just need to keep the formula.”

Bruins not arrived yet…

UCLA coach Cori Close said she heard from every coaching colleague in the Pac-12 after her team’s win over South Florida to get to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999.

“I have really enjoyed the camaraderie of the [Pac-12] coaches this year,” Close said. “People have the spirit of ‘Let’s do this together, let’s move the conference forward together’. There’s been a real selflessness about it.”

The Bruins moved out to a 17-point lead at home on Monday night and then had to hang on for a 72-67 win, with guard Jordin Canada scoring 17 points in the final quarter.

“I didn’t get the sense from our players that they thought we’ve arrived,” Close said. “There’s a hunger, and self-control, that they think they can’t get too high here. I feel like we are maturing through each experience.”

UCLA is hoping to get senior forward Kacy Swain back on the floor this weekend, even for limited minutes. Swain has missed the last six games with a knee injury.

“She had a little bit of a setback and we are hopeful that she’s making progress in time for Saturday,” Close said. “We don’t expect her to come back in and start or play 40 minutes or anything, but she is such a good defender and rebounder and that’s what we need her for, especially against a team like Texas.”

Stanford’s “Bird” has taken flight

Stanford arrived Lexington for its ninth-straight appearance in the NCAA Sweet 16, the Cardinal looking at a rematch of last year’s regional semifinal against Notre Dame, a game Stanford lost 81-60.

Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, who coached her 1,000th game at Stanford on Monday night in the nail biting second-round win over South Dakota State, said it has been tempting late in this season to look at her team, which has no senior starters for the first time in more than a decade, and think about how well they might play next year.

“But you never know about next year, so let’s enjoy this year,” VanDerveer said.

VanDerveer has called junior forward Erica McCall, “the most improved player in the country” this season. McCall has turned into one of the nation’s best post talents.

McCall’s late season numbers are impressive. In the last eight games, McCall, known as “Bird” is averaging 19.9 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. She has scored in double-figures in 17 of the last 18 games and has three straight NCAA double-doubles, a run dating back to last season.

McCall, the Bakersfield native, has been something of a late bloomer, spending her freshman season under the wing of star Chiney Ogwumike and improving her numbers as a sophomore. But this has been McCall’s breakout effort, particularly down the stretch of the season. 

WNIT Update
It was a head-to-head Pac-12 battle on Wednesday night in the WNIT, with Oregon claiming a 73-63 win over Utah in Eugene to advance to the quarterfinal round.

The Ducks have been adjusting to life without All-America candidate Jillian Alleyne, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL several weeks ago. And it appears they are finally finding their groove again. Sophomore Lexi Bando scored 34 points against the Utes, including six 3-pointers.

The Pac-12 teams playing in the WNIT have done their part to contribute to the conference’s postseason success. Utah ends the season with an 18-15 record under first-year head coach Lynne Roberts, doubling its win total from last year.

Enjoying its first 20-win season since 2005, Oregon improves to 23-10 and will face the winner of TCU and UTEP in the quarterfinals.

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse.  

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