Pac-12 Feature: Teams race towards the finish line in final weekend

Associated Press

The beginning of a Pac-12 season that started with excitement and anticipation because of the strength and the depth of the league, it going to end the same way.

The final weekend of the regular season has arrived with high stakes for many of the teams in the standings, and none higher than for the two teams at the top.

Reigning regular-season champ Oregon State and Arizona State are sitting at the top of the Pac-12 pile at 15-1, and each of them have gut-check games this weekend, the kind that truly determine a conference champion. They will compete for a title on the road and will have to go through ranked opponents to do it.

The seventh-ranked Beavers, whose only loss this conference season came in the second game of the season at UCLA back on January 4, head to the Bay Area for Friday night game against No. 13 Stanford at Maples Pavilion having won 14 in a row. The Cardinal will also be playing for the program’s 1,000th all-time victory. It would make Stanford just the seventh program in NCAA history to have 1,000 wins.

Eighth-ranked Arizona State, whose lone loss came at the hands of Oregon State, will close in Los Angeles, including a Sunday, 11 a.m. game against No. 14 UCLA.

While Arizona State and Oregon State are playing for a title. Stanford and UCLA will both be looking for big wins heading into the postseason and to solidify their spot as the No. 3 seed in the tournament.

Beavers coach Scott Rueck said he has not avoided talking about the stakes with his team.

“I don’t hide from that stuff,” Rueck said. “It’s always relevant, so you just address it.  This is been an eight-week marathon through conference, and we have one more weekend. Arizona State hasn’t blinked and we haven’t blinked. And we both still have a lot of work to do.”

Stanford pushed Oregon State in Corvallis earlier this season, leading by 11 points in the fourth quarter before the Beavers came back to win. It was the first win over Stanford since 2001.

Oregon State didn’t make the trip to the Bay Area last season because of the unbalanced schedule. But that doesn’t mean the Beavers don’t know how tough it is to win at Maples Pavilion. They’ve never done it, going 0-28 on the Cardinal’s home court since joining the league back in 1987.

“We can’t control (whether we played there last season or not),” Rueck said. “I haven’t even thought about that. We just want to be playing our best basketball of the year.”

Rueck said he believes his team has settled into a rhythm offensively now that point guard Sydney Wiese has been back in the lineup for several weeks after missing time with a hand injury. And defensively, he thinks his team is “pretty tight.”

The postseason is now officially around the corner.

“We are thinking about it in regard to being prepared,” Rueck said. “It’s coming fast and I feel like our game plan is in place. But we have a big weekend in front of us, so we are focusing on the here and now.”

USC looking for strong finish…

The teams at the top of the standings aren’t the only ones playing for something important in this final weekend.

After a 12-0 start in non-conference play, USC roller-coastered as the conference season began and currently sits at 6-10 heading into Friday’s game against Arizona State. With an RPI of 42, the Trojans are hoping a strong finish can keep them on the NCAA bubble.

The Trojans have played much of the season without two starters, Jordan Adams and Brianna Barrett, who have been ineligible to compete since early January.

“We’ve had some things to deal with. But I think we are coming out the other side. If we can get at least one win this weekend and have a good tournament run, I think we have a legitimate chance to make the postseason,” head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke said. “We have a lot of work to do, but we are still fighting.

“We would love to build some momentum right here.”

That momentum, Cooper said, will be built on defense, which ranks fourth in the Pac-12 (58.3 ppg). The Trojans also lead the conference is steals at 10.29 per game.

“We need to keep playing solid defense and letting our offense come from that,” Cooper said. “And we need to get out and run. A lot of teams have been zoning us and forcing us into half-court offense, which isn’t our game. We need to get out on the break.” 

Player of the Year Race

Did Jamie Weisner’s second Player of the Week award in the last three weeks catapult the Oregon State guard into the leading position for Pac-12 Player of the Year?

Weisner is undoubtedly a leading candidate, along with Washington’s Kelsey Plum  - the Pac-12’s leading scorer, Oregon’s double-double machine and record-holder Jillian Alleyne and UCLA sophomore guard Jordin Canada.

What about first place Arizona State’s Sophie Brunner? Brunner ranks 23rd in the league in scoring and 13th in rebounding. But she’s had a huge role on a balanced team that has been among the best in the country.

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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