It’s an all-Pac-12 Elite 8 in Lexington
Maybe only the two teams playing thought it would turn out this way, with Washington facing off against Stanford for a spot in the NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis.
The Pac-12 is guaranteed at least one spot in the Final Four after upset wins by the seventh-seeded Huskies – who beat Kentucky 85-72 in front of a hometown crowd in Lexington – and No. 4 seed Stanford avenging last year’s Sweet 16 loss and ousting top-seeded Notre Dame, 90-84.
That brings us to a matchup between longtime conference rivals, one of whom will be playing for their first Final Four, the other for their 11th.
“I think we did fly under the radar out west,” Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. “The first thing I noticed was we were in [the same regional] with Stanford. That did jump at me, that it would be great if we played Stanford and that would guarantee a Pac-12 team in the Final Four.”
This will be the 60th meeting between the two teams since 1986. Stanford has a 45-14 record, but the Huskies have the last win, earlier this month in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal.
Washington knocked the Cardinal out in Seattle, 73-65, denying Stanford a trip to the tournament semifinals for the first time ever.
“We are going to try to do the exact same thing out here,” said Huskies forward Talia Walton, coming off her 30-point performance against Kentucky. “They are going to have a great game plan, we will have one as well.”
The last time the Huskies beat Stanford in back-to-back games in the same season was back in 1989. Stanford won this year's regular-season matchup at Maples, 69-53.
“They are not the same team we beat in January,” VanDerveer said. “They’re playing very confidently.”
VanDerveer said her team didn’t play with the intensity it needed in the Pac-12 Tournament.
“But I know that we’ll have it tomorrow. I call this the rubber match, being a bridge player. It’s like this is for all the marbles. I think people are going to see a great game.”
VanDerveer likened the matchup to a pick-up game at the gym “where the kids all know each other. They’ve played against each other a lot.”
Both teams are executing well on the offensive end, and will be looking to negate one another’s strengths.
Stanford forward Erica McCall, who has had a star-making turn in this NCAA Tournament, including a 27-point effort against the Irish, said the Cardinal know what they did wrong back on March 4 in Seattle and what they need to do differently now.
“I think we came out aggressive enough,” McCall said. “I think we were stagnant on offense and it took us a while to definitely get going in the game, and ultimately it was too late for us to come back. So I think we're definitely going to learn from that and come back and come out as an aggressive team.”
VanDerveer credited the Huskies for their execution and for their unexpected run through the bracket.
“Mike has done a great job with their team. They really execute extremely well,” VanDerveer said. “To beat Maryland at Maryland and Kentucky at Kentucky, they’re a hot team. Tomorrow will be who is the hotter team. We’re playing hot basketball too.”
Neighbors, in the meantime, said the reality that the Huskies are one game from the Final Four has taken a little time to set in.
“I’m not sure the moment’s hit them yet,” Neighbors said. “It hit me this morning for the first time, answering messages that ‘You’re a game away from playing in the Final Four’. As coaches, we may say ‘Hey, let’s get together at the Final Four. Let’s talk at the Final Four.’ Somebody said, if we get don’t a chance to talk it’s because you’re playing. And that’s when it hit me.
“I think these kids probably get it. So, the worst thing I could do is screw it up by giving them my opinion on it. So, I’ll get out of their way and let them figure it out.”