Pac-12 Feature: Back on the Right Track

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UCLA Athletics

It was way back in 2008 – when Barack Obama was first elected president and Miley Cyrus was still “Hannah Montana” that UCLA last beat Stanford.

Until Sunday night, that is.

The Bruins didn’t win a title, they didn’t even grab a share of first place. But make no mistake, UCLA’s 56-36 takedown of the league’s standard-bearing program was very big. It ended a 21-game losing streak against the Cardinal, completed the first sweep of the Bay Area schools since 2006 and confirmed that the Bruins are definitely on the right track.

“We were the better team,” Bruins senior guard Nirra Fields said after the game, crediting her team’s defensive effort. “We were on the same page.”

UCLA coach Cori Close said the win was a huge confidence boost for a team that is proving itself better with every game.

“Obviously, it’s a great compliment to Stanford that it meant a lot to us,” Close said. “They have set the bar in this conference for a long time and it’s been a nut we have not been able to crack. It was a great mental hurdle for our players to clear.”

Like Fields, Close credited the UCLA defense, which held Stanford to a season-low 20.4 shooting for the game, forcing 13 first-half turnovers.

“We really committed to defense,” Close said. “We have become better defensive rebounders and we are talking more. Our communication in the zone was really consistent, just so strong. We had to have it happen in order to have the success we wanted to have.”

Close said she is excited to see her team take this momentum to its next set of games, on the road at Colorado and Utah.

“Let’s see what we have learned,” Close said.

Close said that playing in the nation’s toughest conference has steeled her team for what lies ahead as the second-half of the Pac-12 schedule approaches.

“You have to know the urgency that you need every game,” Close said. “It’s not just coach-speak. It’s a reality and we all feel it.”

Cardinal on the rebound 
Stanford finds itself in the unusual position of fifth place in the Pac-12 standings after Sunday’s loss at UCLA, losing a conference game by 20 points for the first time since February 7, 2004.

Offensively, the Cardinal struggled against the Bruins’ zone, but they are already too familiar with offensive struggles this season, having scored less than 40 points against a conference opponent for the second time this season.

In fact, the team that is perennially an offensive juggernaut, Stanford currently ranks ninth in scoring in the Pac-12 at 66.8 points a game and ninth in field-goal percentage at 41.3 percent a game.

The Cardinal’s rebound is going to be a tough one as they host Washington at home on Friday night.

Sun Devils stay hot
Arizona State’s hot start continues after Sunday’s win over Arizona. The Sun Devils are 8-0, the program’s best ever start to a conference season and have collected 14 straight wins.

But a tough weekend awaits, with a tough road trip to Oregon and then Oregon State, a game that could decide first place in the conference standings.

Like every other team in the conference, the Sun Devils will first have to find an answer for the Ducks superstar senior post.

Alleyne and another record
Jillian Alleyne continued her takeover of the Pac-12 record book last weekend., leading the Ducks to their third straight win, a 77-65 win over a strong Utah squad.

Oregon completed a conference road sweep for the first time since 2008-09.

Alleyne, the Pac-12 Player of the Week, finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds for the 85th double-double of her career against the Utes, matching Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike. Alleyne took Ogwumike’s Pac-12 all-time rebounding record just last week.

And with 10 conference games next to play, Alleyne – the national leader in double-doubles - looks like she will be adding to those records in a big way.

Huskies in the rankings
For the first time in 13 years, the Washington Huskies are a ranked team.

The Huskies broke through into the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since March 3, 2003 on Monday, rewarded for a 15-4 record, a 6-2 mark in the nation’s toughest conference and a national RPI rank of 18.

The Huskies will immediately put that new ranking to the test on Friday night at Maples Pavilion where they will face off against Stanford, looking for their first win on the Cardinal’s vaunted home court since 1999.

It’s another big step forward for the Huskies program, who reached the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2007 and currently boast the nation’s top scorer in junior guard Kelsey Plum (27.6 points a game).

Cal hits a skid
One of the most unpleasant surprises of the season so far has been the struggle of the young and talented Cal Bears.

The Bears are 1-7 to open the conference schedule, including a run of five-straight losses.

It’s a spot that Cal is not used to being in. The Bears have only posted a losing record in conference play once since 2004-05 and it has not happened since Lindsay Gottlieb took over in 2011-12.

The biggest issue for Cal seems to be on the defensive end, where the Bears are allowing 68.3 points a game, which ranks 11th in the league.

The Bears also lead the conference with 17.7 turnovers a game.

Cal, who will play at Haas Pavilion for the first time in three weeks, has to be hoping that coming home will change their fortunes. The Bears will face Washington State on Friday and then No. 25 Washington on Sunday.

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

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