Teams jockey for seeds, regular-season title in final weekend
After 18 games, a whole lot of drama and nip-and-tuck, the final weekend of the Pac-12 regular season has arrived and it should surprise pretty much no one that a title hasn’t yet been decided. That it’s going to take a weekend’s full of games to decide a regular-season champion and the final seeds for next week’s Pac-12 Tournament.
We may know a whole lot more after Friday night’s Stanford-Oregon State matchup in Corvallis, tipoff at 8 p.m.
The Cardinal, picked second in the preseason poll, and the Beavers, ranked fifth in the preseason poll, are facing off with the two best records in the league at 14-2. Washington is one game behind at 13-3.
The Beavers have won at least a share of the last two Pac-12 titles, Stanford the previous 14.
These same two teams played to double-overtime at Maples Pavilion in January before the Beavers pulled out the 72-69 win, Oregon State’s first ever win on Stanford’s home floor.
“This is what we all play for, in situations like this,” said Oregon State coach Scott Rueck. “This is a big opportunity, against significant opposition. I don’t know that anyone thought our team would be here. We all hoped for it, and we are here. We are right where any competitor would want to be.”
Tara VanDerveer’s Stanford team has been steady, consistent and an impressive sum of its parts, led by seniors Erica McCall, Karlie Samuelson and Bri Roberson.
“One of the things that helps is that you’ve got people, this is a close team, that are genuinely happy for each other,” VanDerveer said. “It’s not about ‘me scoring’ or ‘me whatever’. People are just ready to do whatever it takes, whatever you need me to do. Alana (Smith) goes in this weekend (and plays well against Cal) and everybody is happy for her.”
The Cardinal have had six different players lead the team in scoring in games so far this season.
“This is a team that is developing great grit,” VanDerveer said. “When we played at Cal, it wasn’t pretty, but it was gritty. Erica (McCall) was struggling the whole game and then she makes a couple of big plays down the stretch. Karlie gets hit in the face and she keeps playing. Different people came in and out of the game and gave us what we needed. There’s an unselfishness.”
Oregon State has been led by senior point guard Sydney Wiese, having an All-American caliber season. But Wiese has been complemented by a deep rotation, with nine players averaging double-digits in minutes, including fellow senior Gabriella Hanson and junior post Marie Gulich.
The Beavers are playing some of the best defense in the country, leading the Pac-12 in scoring defense at 54.7 points per game.
Rueck said his team will need to keep the Cardinal out of transition, control tempo and keep Stanford off the boards.
“The team that hits perimeter shots is going to win,” Rueck said.
Rueck said his team and Stanford are very similar. They are committed to the defensive side of the floor, well-prepared, forcing opponents to play against their strengths.
“They know about us and we know about them,” Rueck said. “Our team has risen to every challenge this season. The only one that kind of doesn’t align is USC. We had good stretches in that game and I think we assumed they would go away and they didn’t. But every other time we’ve been challenged, we’ve risen to it. I’m excited about where we are, playing big in big moments.”
VanDerveer said she believes the Beavers are as good offensively as they are defensively.
But her team will be ready. A long, competitive Pac-12 season has gotten them ready.
“It doesn’t matter who you are playing, I don’t even look at anybody’s record anymore,” VanDerveer said. “You just tell your team, ‘You better bring it, or you are going to get beat.’ If you don’t do the things that define good basketball, you are not going to win.”
Tying a bow on the season: Ten of the 12 teams in the conference have the same record heading into the final weekend of the season, which means there will be plenty of jockeying for tournament seeding.
The top four seeds are set, however, with Oregon State, Stanford, Washington and UCLA solidly in the top four spots.
There are two teams – Oregon and Arizona State – sitting at 8-8. And a whopping four teams at 5-11 – Cal, Colorado, USC and Washington State. All of those teams will be looking to pick up another couple of wins to improve their tournament position and possibly salvage their NCAA hopes.
No host party: VanDerveer has known all season that if her team earned a host bid to the NCAA Tournament they wouldn’t be able to accept, with Stanford hosting the Pac-12 gymnastics championships at Maples Pavilion the same weekend that NCAA play opens.
Stanford is a strong spot for a top 4 seed, the Cardinal tagged as a No. 3 seed in the latest NCAA reveal.
“There’s nothing I can do about it, so we will just pretend we are hosting and just play well,” VanDerveer said. “Hosting doesn’t guarantee you anything. We barely got out of here last year. We’ve been a team that’s played well on the road. It’s fun being at home, but I would just be happy to stay in the west and get a good seed. From there, anything is possible.”
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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