Pac-12 Feature: The coach and the player go head-to-head

Pac-12 Conference, West Coast Conference

Neither Tara VanDerveer nor Jennifer Azzi think they have any specific insight to the other’s coaching moves come Saturday night when No. 4 seed Stanford hosts No. 13 USF in one of the most noteworthy matchups of the NCAA Tournament.

The coach and the player who won a national title together back in 1990 will be back together at Maples Pavilion, this time on opposite benches.

VanDerveer’s Cardinal – one of the mainstay programs in women’s basketball history, will be facing off against Azzi’s Dons, who are in the tournament for the first time since 1997 and the first time since the Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer and Wade Trophy winner took over the program six years ago.

This is Azzi’s best season at USF, the Lady Dons posting a 21-11 record, including an impressive three-game run through the top three seeds to win the West Coast Conference Tournament.

“As soon as she won, I said ‘They are coming to Stanford’,” VanDerveer said. “That’s just how it works and you understand that. I’m really happy for her.

In contrast, VanDerveer said her team left Seattle disappointed after a quarterfinal loss in the Pac-12 Tournament in Seattle.

“Especially having played so well the weekend before,” VanDerveer said. “But we have really improved a lot. Our start was so tough and I think we just got beat down early. I think if there was a Most Improved Player, Erica (McCall) would be my recommendation. She has improved so much, hitting threes, doing what she’s doing.”

Like her own team, VanDerveer said she’s impressed by the resilience of Azzi’s team.

“They have been really out of it in some games and come back,” VanDerveer said. “That’s what’s been impressive about their team.”

Azzi, meanwhile, said her old coach has changed her ways in the last 25 years.

“I have so much respect for her and the success she’s had in the last 30 years,” Azzi said. “It’s so hard to do what she’s done. I’ve learned a lot from watching Stanford play, but it’s definitely different than when I played for her.”


Sun Devils looking to reset
Arizona State went home to Tempe for a reset after exiting the Pac-12 Tournament after one game nearly two weeks ago.

“We needed practice and we needed rest and we got both,” said Sun Devils coach Charli Turner Thorne.

The Sun Devils earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament – the highest seed in program history - and open the first weekend of play in Wells Fargo Arena against No. 15 seed New Mexico State.

They are rejuvenated after a tough stretch of games to close the conference season, including three weekends out of four on the road, including the Pac-12 Tournament.

“We were just spent by the time we got to Seattle,” Turner Thorne said. “It was just flat-out fatigue. We didn’t have any juice left. We are not quite as deep as we’ve been in previous years, so our kids were playing a lot of minutes.”

Turner Thorne said the time at home has been just what her veteran team needs.

“It’s just fundamental things, like taking care of the ball,” Turner Thorne said. “We’ve been able to get back to being tough and working hard. And that’s what our kids said when we got back.

“Their assessment of their own performance was that we were not working hard enough, and they were right.”

Should Arizona State win its first-round game, the Sun Devils face a possible date with seventh-seeded Tennessee in the second round. The last time the Lady Vols were in Tempe, they snapped ASU’s 26 home-game winning streak in Dec. 2006. Tennessee has won all three meeting between the teams, also participating in the first-ever outdoor women’s basketball game at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix on Dec. 27, 2000.


Washington getting “sharp”
The Washington Huskies coaching staff went out and bought a whole lot of Sharpie pens last week and left them around the locker room. The players were encouraged to leave notes for one another, all with the message “Stay sharp.”

The Huskies reached the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament for the first time since the tournament moved to Seattle, exciting the local fans and setting an impressive tone for the NCAA Tournament.

The Huskies are the only Pac-12 team in the first round without a host bid. Washington opens on the road at College Park, Maryland, taking on No. 10 seed Penn.

“The Pac-12 Tournament was a very positive experience for us,” Huskies coach Mike Neighbors said. “To play as hard as we did, it gave our kids a lot of confidence to be able to go on the road, to a neutral site and play well. I don’t think the next week will be any harder than what we just did (in the conference tournament).”

The Huskies are in the NCAA field for the second year in a row, the first time the program has made back-to-back NCAA appearances since 2006-2007.

This time, Washington acted as if it expected to be there.

“You could see the difference in the celebration,” Neighbors said. “I think we think we can play with anybody. There is no team out there that’s five points ahead of us the moment they walk into the gym. The best teams have a quiet confidence, a little swagger and I have seen our team have that at times.”


Oregon State in a good place
Oregon State held a late-evening practice on Tuesday night to prepare for Friday’s 2 p.m. tip in Corvallis against No. 15 seed Troy.

“It was good, we are in a good place,” said Beavers coach Scott Rueck. “Part of what we talked about, was reminding each other what it takes to get here. We need to keep that edge, keep those feelings close the surface.”

It’s easier said than done, but Rueck said his Oregon State players are doing more than talking about it.

“In practice, we just have to remain competitive and not relaxing,” Rueck said. “Our team has conditioned itself to play that way. We need to hang on to that identity.”


UCLA learning from experience
The Bruins are making their first NCAA appearance since 2013 and the expectations are high for a young team that made a huge leap from last year.

UCLA has gone from last year’s WNIT Championship to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA bracket. The Bruins will take on No. 14 seed Hawaii at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

“Once we started the preparations from this first game, I really had to stop and pause and thank our staff for their hard work and their sacrifice,” said UCLA head coach Cori Close. “Because I am really am pleased with our growth, the mentality change and the improvement in our work ethic.

“I’m very thankful. And I think it’s important to take the time to pause and acknowledge that we’ve come a long way. That doesn’t make us any less hungry.”

Close said she was wearing her WNIT ring this week as a reminder of the lessons learned last year.

“Last season taught us a lot of things that we wouldn’t have learned if we hadn’t taken those lumps,” Close said. “We always say you aren’t born for this, you are built for it. You’ve got to earn what you want.”

Sophomore guard Jordin Canada said she feels well prepared, despite the fact that this will be her first NCAA game.

“Team chemistry is the thing we are much better at,” Canada said. “Knowing each other, improving communications, it’s helped us a great deal. I see more fight in this team, more great, more heart and wanting to fight for one another.”

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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