Michelle Smith Feature: Six key women's basketball games highlights final weeks

There are three weeks left in the Pac-12 season before the annual gathering in Seattle for the Pac-12 Tournament and, for a lot of teams, the stretch run presents a half-dozen opportunities to grow, get better and solidify their standing as NCAA Tournament-worthy teams.

And for a collection of teams at the top of the standings, it’s a knockdown-drag-out fight to the finish with a championship on the line.

With Stanford’s win at Oregon, there is now a three-way tie at the top, the Ducks, Cardinal and Bruins all in first-place with 10-2 records.

Oregon State and Arizona State sit two games back at 8-4. Cal and Utah have 6-6 marks and USC is at 5-7. The latter three teams need big wins to position themselves for the NCAA bracket.

And there’s no time like the present.

Let’s take a look at the remaining games on the schedule that will have big postseason implications for the Pac-12’s top teams.

Arizona State at UCLA, Sunday, February 11 – If the Sun Devils want to compete for a title, or a top-4 Pac-12 Tournament seed (which guarantees a bye in the first round), they could definitely benefit from a win against the Bruins. ASU has rallied to win three straight after a tough stretch with four losses in five games to climb back into the race and this will be its only matchup against preseason favorite UCLA during the regular season. But the Sun Devils have struggled away from home this season with a 5-6 mark. UCLA, meanwhile, has won eight straight games to keep themselves in title position and are 9-2 at home this season.

Utah at California, Sunday, February 11 – At 6-6, both the Utes and the Bears are still looking for some major momentum heading into the postseason. This game will be a key barometer for both teams and give the winner a chance to gain some separation. Utah broke a 3-game losing streak on Sunday with its win over Colorado, and play four of their final six games on the road. But Utah is 7-2 on the road this season, so the Utes won’t be intimidated by that. Cal has also hit a recent skid with three straight losses and the Bears are struggling to score, averaging 48 points over that same stretch. The battle inside will be one of the best the conference has to offer with Cal’s Kristine Anigwe and Utah senior Emily Potter going head-to-head.

Stanford at California, Saturday, February 17 – Beyond the appeal of this nationally relevant rivalry between the Bears and the Cardinal, this game will figure big in the Pac-12 standings. Stanford is surging after its road sweep of Oregon State and Oregon, winning four in a row to move into the three-way tie for first place. The Cardinal is putting itself in position for its first Pac-12 regular season title since 2014. And they are probably going to need a big win on the road against the hungry Bears, who haven’t beaten a ranked Pac-12 team yet this season. The Bears haven’t beaten Stanford since they won at Maples Pavilion in 2015. Cal will play this game on its home floor, where it is 9-3 this season.

UCLA at Oregon, Monday, February 19 – They don’t get much bigger than this – two top-10 teams, likely playing for first place in front of a national television audience. This is bound to be an intense rematch after UCLA fell, 70-61, at Pauley Pavilion on January 7 in the second week of conference play. That game ended UCLA’s 20-game home winning streak in Pac-12 play. The Bruins re-evaluated after that game and have been on a roll ever since. Monique Billings, with her 41 career double-doubles, will have her work cut out for her against Ducks sophomore post Ruthy Hebard. And this matchup will showcase two of the country’s top guards in Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu and UCLA’s Jordin Canada, who both rank among the NCAA assist leaders. Oregon’s home loss to Stanford will have the Ducks motivated to defend their floor at Matthew Knight Court and go into the final weekend of Pac-12 play in position to win a championship.

Utah at USC, Thursday, February 22 – The Utes and the Women of Troy are in the same position, in need of key wins down the stretch to solidify their postseason prospects and their spots in the Pac-12 Tournament bracket. USC won the first matchup between these two teams on January 14, 58-47. USC is 2-2 in the last 4 games following a pair of losses last weekend to UCLA. USC finishes with four of its last six games at home.

Oregon at Arizona State, Friday, February 23 – On the final weekend of conference play, both the Ducks and the Sun Devils have a chance to make a statement.  Oregon, who beat ASU by 10 points at home on January 14, plays four of its final six games on the road, providing the kind of challenge it needs heading into a postseason run that is going to have big expectations. ASU is an impressive 11-1 at home this season, and would love the late-season momentum push of getting a win against one of the nation’s best teams.

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